Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, one of Donald Trump's earliest and most enthusiastic backers to be president, has been offered the job of attorney general, Trump's transition team said Friday.
Sessions, 69, is considered one of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate and has extensive legal experience as a federal prosecutor in his home state of Alabama.
But his expected nomination was immediately met with fierce opposition from critics who said it would put federal civil rights enforcement into the hands of a man whose confirmation to a federal judgeship in the 1980s was blocked over allegations he made several racially offensive remarks.
"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, Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is your man," Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said in a statement. "No senator has fought harder against the hopes and aspirations of Latinos, immigrants, and people of color than Sen. Sessions."
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, soon to become the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said that as a longtime member of the panel, Sessions is "well aware of the thorough vetting he's about to receive."
But Republicans vowed to fight for his confirmation.
Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called Sessions a "respected member" of the panel who has "worked across the aisle on major legislation. He knows the Justice Department as a former U.S. attorney, which would serve him very well in this position. With this background, I'm confident he would be reported favorably out of the committee."
If Sessions accepts the job and is confirmed, he would lead an agency of more than 100,000 employees and a nearly $30 billion budget that is tasked with investigating and prosecuting terrorists, civil rights violators and those who break environmental laws.
Generally liked and respected by his colleagues in both political parties, Sessions has earned a reputation for being one of its most conservative members and often backed tough-on-crime legislation. He is particularly tough on illegal immigration, one of Trump's signature issues. He voted against President Obama's two selections for the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
Sessions, who became the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump in February, has since emerged as one of the business mogul's closest advisors.
Senate staffers said they expected him to be confirmed, but the process may not be an easy one.
"There's going to be a confirmation fight," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigrant advocacy group. "He couldn't get confirmed as a judge. Why should he get confirmed as the top civil rights officer for the country?"
In 1986, his nomination to be a federal judge was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee after it emerged he made racially insensitive remarks.
During his hearings, four Justice Department lawyers testified that he had expressed racist views or endorsed them. He acknowledged in testimony that he called the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and American Civil Liberties Union "un-American," though he denied believing such statements.
A colleague also testified that Sessions had agreed with a statement that a white lawyer was a "disgrace" to his race for handling civil rights cases. A black lawyer testified that Sessions once called him "boy." Sessions denied having made those statements.
If confirmed to be attorney general, Sessions would lead an agency that under Obama has waded aggressively into civil rights issues, particularly in the wake of unrest sparked by the killings of black men by police officers in recent years.
The Justice Department has investigated nearly two dozen police departments whose officers allegedly violated the rights of citizens they served.
Sessions has also opposed strengthening federal enforcement powers under the 1965 Voting Rights Act and was one of a handful of GOP senators blocking a bipartisan bill to loosen sentencing rules for low-level offenders.
"Is he going to be a challenge on sentencing reform? Of course," said Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a coalition of conservative and liberal groups backing criminal justice reform.
"I'm hopeful that the movement will not have a knee-jerk and alarmist reaction to this, throw their hands in the air and take their ball and go home," she said.
Harris noted some brighter spots in Sessions' record, mainly his friendlier stance toward proposals to ease offenders' reentry into life after prison. And she said that progress made in the states to reduce prison populations and decrease recidivism may set a trend that Washington could eventually embrace.
"There are roughly 30 states that have implemented some form of significant reform legislation, and there's one attorney general," she said. "I feel very confident that if there is influence to be had, I think it will be on the Trump administration."
Sessions was an active-duty Army Reserve officer in 1973 near the end of the Vietnam War. He stayed in the reserves through 1986, rising to the rank of captain.
The son of a country store owner, Sessions was born in Selma, Ala., and grew up in nearby Hybart during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
He worked his way through Huntingdon College in Montgomery, where he was active in the Young Republicans and became student body president before graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in 1969.
He was tapped by President Reagan in 1981 to be the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, a position he held through 1993. In 1994, he was elected to be the state's attorney general. Two years later, he won a Senate seat.
He is married and has three children.
Staff writer W.J. Hennigan contributed to this report.
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9:25 a.m.: This article was updated with comment from Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network.
8:30 a.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction.
5:30 a.m.: This article was updated with additional background.