Donald Trump nominee Jeff Sessions haunted by racist comments

Jeff Sessions arrives in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, Nov 14, 2016.
Jeff Sessions arrives in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, Nov 14, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump's choice to be US attorney-general, is an arch-conservative southerner haunted by racially-charged comments he made decades ago.

Now a 69-year-old senator from Alabama, Sessions was once denied a judgeship amid concerns over his past comments about blacks, and over remarks that appeared sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan.

The allegations came out in 1986 during witness testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee as Sessions sought approval to be a federal district court judge. He was turned down, in an extremely rare step.

 

During the lengthy testimony, Sessions admitted that - when told that a white lawyer had been called a "disgrace to his race" for defending African-Americans - he responded by saying: "Well, maybe he is."

It also emerged during the hearings that in the 1980s he allegedly addressed a black prosecutor working for him as "boy," and joked about the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) saying he thought its members were "OK, until I found out they smoked pot," according to The New York Times.

Trump himself drew criticism during the campaign for derogatory remarks about Mexicans, his vow to bar Muslims from entering the US, and for drawing support from white supremacists.

So now the Trump administration could get under way with more racially-charged hearings: Sessions could face renewed questioning on race as he goes before the Senate to seek approval of his appointment.

In the Trump team statement announcing his nomination, Sessions said: "I enthusiastically embrace President-elect Trump's vision for 'one America,' and his commitment to equal justice under law."

"I look forward to fulfilling my duties with an unwavering dedication to fairness and impartiality," he added.

A member of the Senate since 1996, Sessions is an outspoken voice against giving undocumented immigrants a path to US citizenship and in favour of reduced spending and a tough approach to fighting crime.

He was the first senator to endorse Trump during the campaign and is said to have become a close adviser to the real estate tycoon with no experience in government.

As attorney-general, Sessions would be entrusted with upholding civil rights in America at a time of acute tension after the Trump election win and anger over how mainly white law enforcement officers treat black detainees amid a series of deadly police shootings.

The allegations about the "boy" comment came from an African-American prosecutor, Thomas Figures, who testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee during the hearings back in 1986.

At the time of those comments - which Sessions denied making - Sessions was working at the US attorney in Mobile, Alabama.

Of his comments about the KKK, Sessions said he was just joking and the comment was so outrageous he did not believe anyone could take him seriously.