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President-Elect Trump Selects Sen. Jeff Sessions As Attorney General

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The administration of Donald Trump is coming into view as the president-elect begins to fill key jobs. His national security adviser will be retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who once headed the Defense Intelligence Agency. And to head the CIA, Trump will nominate Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo of Kansas, a former Army officer who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. We'll take a closer look at those twom men elsewhere in the show.

We'll talk now about Trump's choice for U.S. attorney general, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. That post requires Senate confirmation and and Sessions is already facing opposition from civil rights groups because he's made racially-insensitive remarks in the past. With us to talk about Sessions is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hi there.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So tell us about Jeff Sessions' qualifications for this post.

MCEVERS: He's been a senator for the past 20 years. But before that, he was a U.S. attorney in Alabama, the top federal prosecutor there. He also served as attorney general in the state. And perhaps most importantly, Sessions was one of the very first members of Congress to come out in support of Donald Trump. And that loyalty is being rewarded now.

MCEVERS: What are civil rights groups saying about this appointment? Why are they so opposed to him?

JOHNSON: The Senate actually denied Jeff Sessions a lifetime-tenure federal judge post back in 1986 because lawyers testified - testified that he had made a series of troubling remarks, for instance, calling a black lawyer boy, joking he thought the KKK was all right until he found out they smoked marijuana.

Now, Sessions said he engaged in loose talk and denied he was a racist. Today, the Trump team reminded reporters that Sessions helped push through a congressional medal for civil rights hero Rosa Parks. But that old record has still followed him for decades.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU are very concerned about his record on issues like voting rights and LGBT rights, both big hallmarks of the Obama Justice Department.

MCEVERS: What are the odds that senators will confirm Jeff Sessions?

JOHNSON: Well, the Senate generally takes care of its own. Top Republicans in Congress today say they believe he will be confirmed. But Democrats say he should prepare for a very tough vetting of his record. Minority leader Chuck Schumer says he's concerned about what Sessions would do to the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department. And the last time a sitting senator got nominated as attorney general, it was John Ashcroft in the George W. Bush years. He was confirmed after 42 no votes.

MCEVERS: So let's talk about a Justice Department under a Trump administration. How would it be different?

JOHNSON: Well, a lot. First, there's the symbolism. If he's confirmed, Jeff Sessions will be replacing Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, two African-Americans who have spoken about their personal history with discrimination. Then, Kelly, there are the issues. Both Trump and Senator Sessions have staked out very tough anti-immigration views. And the White House and the attorney general have a lot of power on the immigration front, including deciding how to enforce the law and deport people.

MCEVERS: And what about investigations that happened under the Obama administration of discrimination and of excessive force by police departments? Will those investigations stop under a President Trump?

JOHNSON: Well, the people currently at Justice don't think the Trump administration will walk away from settlements already in place. As for ongoing work, not clear what will happen in Baltimore and Chicago, where there's not yet deals in place. And it's not at all clear that the Trump administration is going to want to mount a lot of new investigations into racial discrimination or excessive force by police the way the Obama folks did.

MCEVERS: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks a lot.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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