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Trump faces backlash for tapping Jeff Sessions as attorney general

President-elect Donald Trump on Friday named his earliest and staunchest supporter in the Senate, conservative Republican Jeff Sessions, to become the next U.S. attorney general, triggering an outcry from civil rights groups as well as some conservatives outside Congress who are uneasy about Sessions' positions.

Senator who was denied federal prosecutor position over allegations of racism accepts job as top U.S. lawman

U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, an advisor to U.S. president-elect Donald Trump, speaks to members of the Media in the lobby of Trump Tower on Thursday. Sessions has been tapped as Trump's attorney general. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

President-elect Donald Trump on Friday named his earliest and staunchest supporter in the Senate, conservative Republican Jeff Sessions, to become the next U.S. attorney general, triggering an outcry from civil rights groups as well as some conservatives outside Congress who are uneasy about Sessions' positions.

Sessions is one of three senior leaders Trump has appointed  to his national security and law enforcement teams, including Representative Mike Pompeo as CIA director and retired Lt.-Gen. Mike Flynn as national security adviser.

If approved for the job by a simple majority in the Republican-dominated Senate, Sessions, 69, would lead the Justice Department and the FBI. He brings a record of controversial positions on race, immigration and criminal justice reform that Democrats may target.

Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and Trump critic, said on Twitter, "Jeff Sessions, considered too racist to be a judge in the '80s, is Trump's AG."

Holly Harris, executive director of U.S. Justice Action Network, a sentencing reform advocacy group that includes powerful conservative tax reform lobbyist Grover Norquist, said Sessions' nomination "obviously presents a challenge."

Sessions has opposed lowering mandatory minimum sentences for low-level offenders. Many civil rights and immigration groups also have concerns about Sessions with the American Civil Liberties Union saying his positions on gay rights, capital punishment, abortion rights and presidential authority in times of war should be examined.

Our nation deserves an attorney general who will be committed to enforcement of our nation's civil rights laws and who will not turn the clock back on progress that has been made.- Kristen Clarke,Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

Democratic House member Luis Gutierrez said Sessions is the right pick "if you have nostalgia for the days when blacks kept quiet, gays were in the closet, immigrants were invisible and women stayed in the kitchen."

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Reuters: "Our nation deserves an attorney general who will be committed to enforcement of our nation's civil rights laws and who will not turn the clock back on progress that has been made."

Trump spokesman Jason Miller defended Sessions against allegations of racism, saying: "When Senator Sessions was U.S. attorney he filed a number of desegregation lawsuits in Alabama, and he also voted in favor of the 30-year extension of the Civil Rights Act ... So we feel very confident that Senator Sessions has the background and the support to receive confirmation." Sessions' office did not respond to a request for comment on his nomination or criticism.

Rejected from judgeship

Sessions was a federal prosecutor in 1986 when he became only the second nominee in 50 years to be denied confirmation as a federal judge.

This came after allegations that he had made racist remarks, including testimony that he had called an African-American prosecutor "boy," an allegation Sessions denied.

Sessions said he was not a racist, but he said at his hearing that groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union could be considered "un-American."

Trump sits with Sessions, left, and retired U.S. Army General Keith Kellogg during a national security meeting with advisors at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, on Oct. 7. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

He also acknowledged he had called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a "piece of intrusive legislation."

No members of the Senate judiciary committee, which will hold Sessions' confirmation hearing, had expressed outright opposition to his nomination as of Friday morning, but many Democrats said he would get a thorough and tough confirmation hearing.

"Given some of his past statements and his staunch opposition to immigration reform, I am very concerned about what he would do with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and want to hear what he has to say," said Charles Schumer, the newly elected Democratic Senate leader.

Friendly with police 

Judiciary committee member Senator Jeff Flake, a moderate Republican on immigration issues and a long-time critic of Trump, said on Twitter that he will support Sessions, who he said is "well regarded, even by those who don't always agree with him."

The Justice Department under Democratic President Barack Obama's Justice Department opened investigations of 23 police departments around the country for patterns of civil rights violations and Sessions, as attorney general, would have the discretion to drop investigations that are still open.

Jim Pasco, the executive director of Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police union, said police have had a good relationship working with Sessions, especially on policies that allow police to keep assets seized from criminals.

"The door [to Sessions] has been open and we expect it to remain open," Pasco said.

Pompeo a staunch Obama, Clinton critic

Sessions' hard-line and at times inflammatory statements on immigration are similar to Trump's but have angered other members of Congress. He opposes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and was an enthusiastic backer of Trump's promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

As a senator, Sessions opposed Obama's nomination of Loretta Lynch as attorney general on the grounds that she would carry out an Obama immigration policy that shielded many undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Sessions also has questioned the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to everyone born in the United States, and opposes plans to admit more immigrants from war-torn Middle Eastern countries.

As attorney general, Sessions would be able to turn more to state governments to enforce federal immigration laws. He also could increase enforcement on companies that outsource technology jobs.

Congressman Mike Pompeo pauses while speaking to the media in Washington in this October 2015 file photo. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Pompeo, a conservative Republican congressman from Kansas, has also been a harsh critic of the Obama administration.

He denounced the Iran deal, which granted Tehran sanctions relief for rolling back its nuclear weapons program, and was a member of the congressional committee that blasted Hillary Clinton over the attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya.

With files from Associated Press

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