In Donald Trump’s world, most roads, it seems, lead back to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), President-elect Trump’s pick for attorney general.
After Sessions became one of the first members of Congress to endorse Trump this February, he became an adviser on almost every major decision and policy proposal Trump made during the campaign:
–A top Sessions aide helped Trump communicate his immigration policy
–Sessions chaired Trump national security advisory committee
–Sessions advised Trump on who to choose for vice president. (Sessions was also in the running himself for the No. 2 job.)
“The president-elect has been unbelievably impressed with Senator Sessions and his phenomenal record as Alabama’s attorney general and U.S. attorney,” a Trump transition statement released Thursday read. “It is no wonder the people of Alabama re-elected him without opposition.”
In a relatively short time, Sessions has elevated himself from back-bencher to a “arguably one of the top 5 power players in the country now,” said Alabama GOP consultant Brent Buchanan. Here’s crash course in a politician likely to be a pivotal figure in Trump’s administration:
The basics: Sessions has served as a senator from Alabama for two decades. But Alabama is such a loyal state to its top lawmakers that Sessions is actually the junior senator from the state; Sen. Richard Shelby (R) has been in office three decades.
Sessions is popular back home: Aside from his first election in 1996, Sessions has never won with less than 59 percent of the vote. In 2014, he ran unopposed.
His full name is: Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III.
He’s “amnesty’s worst enemy”: The conservative National Review crowned Sessions with that title in 2014, with good reason. Sessions has opposed nearly every immigration bill that has come before the Senate the past two decades that has included a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
He’s also fought legal immigration, including guest worker programs for illegal immigrants and visa programs for foreign workers in science, math and high-tech. In 2007, Sessions got a bill passed essentially banning for 10 years federal contractors who hire illegal immigrants.
“Legal immigration is the primary source of low-wage immigration into the United States,” Sessions argued in a 2015 Washington Post op-ed. “… What we need now is immigration moderation: slowing the pace of new arrivals so that wages can rise, welfare rolls can shrink and the forces of assimilation can knit us all more closely together.”
He’s a debt hawk and a military hawk: Sessions, a lawyer before he became a politician, is known for touring Alabama with charts warning of the United States’ “crippling” debt. On foreign policy, Sessions has advocated a get-tough approach, once voting against an amendment banning “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of prisoners.
These are two positions that could put him at odd with the president he’ll serve: Trump has expensive plans that involve significant spending, like $1 trillion on an infrastructure program — and he campaigned on a strong non-interventionist worldview (often claiming, inaccurately, that he opposed the Iraq War before it started).
He’s a climate change skeptic: Here’s Sessions in a 2015 hearing questioning Environmental Protection Agency’s Gina McCarthy: “Carbon pollution is CO2, and that’s really not a pollutant; that’s a plant food, and it doesn’t harm anybody except that it might include temperature increases.”
Accusations of racism have dogged Sessions’s career: Actually, they almost derailed it. In 1986, a Senate committee denied Sessions, then a 39-year-old U.S. attorney in Alabama, a federal judgeship. His former colleagues testified Sessions used the n-word and joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying he thought they were “okay, until he learned that they smoked marijuana.”
By the time the testimony was finished, Sessions’s “reputation was in tatters,” wrote Isaac Stanley-Becker in The Post this July, on the eve of Sessions delivering a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention for Trump.
In 1986, Sessions defended himself against accusations of racism. “I am not the Jeff Sessions my detractors have tried to create,” he told the very same Senate Judiciary Committee he now sits on. “I am not a racist. I am not insensitive to blacks.”
And he told Stanley-Becker this summer: “Racism is totally unacceptable in America. Everybody needs to be treated fairly and objectively.”
But the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Heidi Beirich, who tracks hate speech, said Sessions is guilty of it, and that his mere presence in Trump’s inner circle is “a tragedy for American politics.”
He’s got a populist streak: Here’s one area where he and Trump likely get along swell. Wall Street and corporate executives are often the antagonists in the Alabama senator’s speeches. “A small group of CEOs don’t get to set immigration policy for the country,” he said in a 2014 speech opposing a multi-billion-dollar bill to help control the stem of influx of Central American refugees on the border.
As hard-line as Sessions can be, he’s worked with Democrats before: “Say what you will about him,” former longtime Senate Democratic communications aide Jim Manley told the Almanac of American Politics. “He was always nice to [the late Ted] Kennedy and other Democrats as well.”
Even people who have run against him have nice things to say about him. Stanley-Becker talked to Susan Parker, a Democrat who tried to unseat Sessions in 2002. During a debate, she asked for a tissue and Sessions handed her one. She joked she would use it to dry her eyes when Sessions made her cry, and he responded: “Please don’t say that. That’s my nightmare. I promise I’ll be nice.”
Sessions has joined with Democrats to support criminal justice reform legislation, and in 2010 he teamed up with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on a proposal to put strict limits on non-military federal spending. It fell one vote short of passing.
In 2016, he’s gone from fringe to mainstream: Aside from immigration battles, Sessions mostly operated in the background on Capitol Hill. Until 2016. His mix of hard-line immigration position and a populist streak had made him a tea party star and thus a coveted endorsement catch for Republican presidential candidates catering to the tea party. In presidential primary debates, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) would even brag about his ties to Sessions.
In the end, Sessions chose Trump, surprising the political establishment by jumping on stage with him at a rally in February in Madison, Ala., two days before Super Tuesday and donning a “Make America Great Again” hat.
“I told Donald Trump this isn’t a campaign, this is a movement,” Sessions said at the time.
Nine months later, Sessions will be a central figure in transitioning that “movement” into a working government.