RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The first of President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees gets a hearing this morning. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions was one of Trump's earliest supporters in Congress, now he's in line to become the next attorney general. But a big question looms over today's hearing - can a man who was rejected for a federal judgeship 30 years ago for making racially insensitive remarks lead the Justice Department today? With us to talk about this is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Good morning, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So let's go back in time a bit, 1986. This is when the Senate rejected Jeff Sessions for a judgeship. Many senators from both parties took issue with comments that he had made about black lawyers and comments he made about the KKK. Remind us what happened then.
JOHNSON: Lawyers at the Justice Department actually came forward during that process to express concern about a series of statements Jeff Sessions made. One lawyer said Jeff Sessions had called an African-American the word boy. Another said Sessions made a remark about the KKK that he used to think the group was all right until he found out they smoked pot. Now, Sessions denied some of those allegations and said others were just a bad joke. He said people painted a misleading portrait of him.
MARTIN: All right. So now 30 years later, has Jeff Sessions changed or have the views of the Senate changed or both?
JOHNSON: Well, a little bit of both, Rachel. One important thing that's changed is that for the past 20 years, Jeff Sessions has been a United States senator, a member of the club. In fact, he sits on the Judiciary Committee, the same panel that rejected him all those years ago and that will consider him today. He's pretty popular on the Hill. And he has reached across the aisle on occasion, once even reaching a deal with Democrats in the Senate gym to overhaul sentences for drug defendants.
MARTIN: A civil rights movement is afoot. Civil rights groups haven't really forgotten that fight over Sessions from the 1980s, and they're gathering evidence about his record in Congress, evidence that concerns them. What can you tell us about that effort?
JOHNSON: Well, all the reporters on the DOJ beat including me have gotten tons and tons of reports over the last few weeks detailing Sessions' record on the Hill. They're protesting his approach to voting rights. He's called the Voting Rights Act intrusive. His vote against the Violence Against Women Act, his vote against the Matthew Shepard hate crimes bill and his alleged antipathy towards same-sex marriage and transgender rights. Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund says lawmakers should be asking this question.
SHERRILYN IFILL: The question is not what is in Jeff Sessions' heart. The question is - what in his record over 40 years suggests that we can trust him to enforce the nation's civil rights laws?
JOHNSON: And Ifill and other leaders including the former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick are really urging lawmakers to dig into that record.
MARTIN: All right. So today begins the first of two days of hearings on Sessions' record. What kind of questions is he likely to get?
JOHNSON: A whole bunch about whether he'll support some of the things that Donald Trump said on the campaign trail. For instance, Sessions and Trump have both said torture works, but the FBI and CIA officials say they don't want to return to those dark days. Sessions also said he supports some kind of ban on Muslims entering the U.S., but there are questions about whether that's discriminating against an entire category of people on the basis of their religion.
MARTIN: Sessions has lined up a lot of support though from law enforcement in particular, former Justice Department officials, too. Who's going to be testifying on his behalf?
JOHNSON: A lot of luminaries - former Judge Michael Mukasey, who served as attorney general under President George W. Bush, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, another Bush official, and an African-American who says he can attest that Jeff Sessions is not a racist. And, Rachel, there's also the head of the Fraternal Order of Police. That's the country's largest police union which is backing Sessions as a friend for cops.
MARTIN: So it sounds like he's got the support he needs. Any chance that Jeff Sessions does not become the next U.S. attorney general?
JOHNSON: Rachel, there's always a chance. You never know if there's going to be a slip up in the way a nominee answers questions. And in fact late last night, we learned that Cory Booker, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, is actually going to testify against Jeff Sessions which doesn't happen very often, if ever. But really for Democrats, the best strategy with these hearings may be to try to get Sessions to make promises to do things or promises not to do things.
Now, one of the things they may try to get Sessions to say is that he'll aggressively investigate any possible conflicts of interest or other corruption in the Trump administration. They also as Democrats want him to say they will not - that he will not order the Justice Department to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton.
MARTIN: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thanks.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
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