US POLITICS: ANALYSIS
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Donald Trump

US Senate confirms Jeff Sessions as attorney general despite protests over controversial past

Sessions takes charge of the Justice Department and its 113,000 employees, including the 93 US attorneys throughout the country

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 February, 2017, 9:13am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 February, 2017, 10:15am

The US Senate confirmed Jeff Sessions as attorney general on Wednesday, despite vitriolic debate over his civil rights record and whether he can serve as the nation’s top law enforcement officer independent from President Donald Trump.

Lawmakers backed Senator Sessions as the 84th US attorney general on a mostly party line vote of 52 to 47, with just one Democrat – Joe Manchin of West Virginia – joining the Republican majority.

Sessions voted present, and when the tally was announced many senators broke into extended applause for their colleague.

He’s honest. He’s fair ... It’s been tough to watch all this good man has been put through in recent weeks
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell

Trump has harangued Democrats for slow-walking his nominees, blasting their unprecedented obstruction as a “disgrace”.

He appeared particularly angered by the delay on Sessions, who as attorney general would wield enormous power regarding the administration of justice, including on the issue of voting rights.

Sessions, widely seen as an inspiration for Trump’s anti-immigration policies, is just the sixth of 15 cabinet members to be confirmed, in addition to the cabinet-rank positions of CIA director and US ambassador to the United Nations.

A day earlier senators broke into fiercely personal debate, which saw the Democrat Elizabeth Warren barred from speaking after she was deemed to have broken chamber rules on decorum.

Sessions takes charge of the Justice Department and its 113,000 employees, including the 93 US attorneys throughout the country.

He steps in amid a swirling legal debate over Trump’s most controversial White House action to date, an executive order temporarily blocking all refugee arrivals and immigration from seven mainly Muslim countries.

Sessions, who like the president is 70, was an early loyal Trump supporter who became a pivotal figure in his campaign and transition team. He was a US attorney for the southern district of Alabama from 1981 to 1993, before serving two years as the state’s attorney general. He won a seat in the US Senate in 1996.

But in 1986 his career was almost derailed when a US Senate panel rejected his nomination for a judgeship amid concerns over past comments he made about blacks, and over remarks that appeared sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan.

Democrats have attacked Sessions, casting him as too cosy with Trump and too harsh on immigrants. They asserted he wouldn’t do enough to protect voting rights of minorities, protections for gays and the legal right of women to obtain an abortion. They fear immigrants in the country illegally won’t receive due process with Session as the top law enforcement officer.

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“Any attorney general must be able to stand firm for the rule of law even against the powerful executive that nominated him or her. In this administration I believe that independence is even more necessary,” said Senator Tim Kaine. “His [Sessions’] record raises doubts about whether he can be a champion for those who need this office most and it also raises doubts about whether he can curb unlawful overreach [by Trump].”

Republicans say Sessions has demonstrated over a long career in public service – and two decades in the Senate – that he possesses integrity, honesty and is committed to justice.

“He’s honest. He’s fair. He’s been a friend to many of us, on both sides of the aisle,” majority leader Mitch McConnell said. “It’s been tough to watch all this good man has been put through in recent weeks. This is a well-qualified colleague with a deep reverence for the law. He believes strongly in the equal application of it to everyone.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press