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Bid for Court Seat Scuttled

Specter of Race Trails

Potential Cabinet Pick

By MATT APUZZO

The New York Times

WASHINGTON--In 1981, a Justice Department prosecutor from Washington stopped by to see Jeff Sessions, the United States attorney in Mobile, Ala., at the time. The prosecutor, J. Gerald Hebert, said he had heard a shocking story: A federal judge had called a prominent white lawyer “a disgrace to his race” for representing Black clients.

‘Well,” Mr. Sessions replied, according to Mr. Hebert, “maybe he is.”

In testimony before Congress in 1986, Mr. Hebert and others painted an unflattering portrait of Mr. Sessions, who would go on to become a senator from Alabama and now, according to numerous sources close to President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition team, is a potential nominee for attorney general or secretary of defense.

Mr. Hebert testified that Mr. Sessions had referred to the American Civil Liberties Union and the N.A.A.C.P. as “un-American” for “trying to force civil rights down the throats of people.”

One African-American prosecutor testified that Mr. Sessions had called him “boy” and joked that he thought that the Ku Klux Klan “was O.K. until I found out they smoked pot.”

Mr. Sessions denied calling the lawyer “boy” but acknowledged or did not dispute the substance of the other remarks. The bitter testimony sank his nomination by President Ronald Reagan to be a federal district court judge and foreshadowed the questions that Mr. Sessions could face at another set of Senate confirmation hearings if Mr. Trump nominates him for a cabinet position.

After nearly 20 years in the Senate, Mr. Sessions, 69, now has more allies and would face a clearer road to confirmation than he did as a young judicial nominee. And as the first senator to endorse Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, he has a special status as an early supporter who became an important surrogate and close adviser.

But for Mr. Trump a Sessions nomination to a critical position at the Justice or Defense Department still presents risks. Mr. Trump faced criticism over his derogatory remarks about Mexicans and his support from racist groups throughout his campaign, and for his appointment of a nationalist media executive to a top White House position since his election. A Sessions nomination raises the possibility that a Trump administration will open with racially charged hearings.

A spokesman for Mr. Sessions did not respond to a request for comment. But on Tuesday, Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who opposed Mr. Trump’s candidacy, enthusiastically endorsed Mr. Sessions for a major job in the Trump administration.

“I think Jeff Sessions has earned the right to serve Donald Trump in the highest levels,” he told reporters.

As attorney general, Mr. Sessions would be responsible for upholding civil rights laws. As secretary of defense, he would oversee one of the most ethnically diverse institutions in the country: 25 percent of the military is African-American, Asian or Hispanic.

As one of the most conservative members of the Senate, Mr. Sessions has been a reliable voice for strict immigration enforcement, reduced spending and tough-on-crime measures. He is generally well liked among colleagues in both parties, and took a political risk endorsing Mr. Trump shortly after the South Carolina primary. His views on immigration and trade are aligned with the message that Mr. Trump conveyed during the race. Mr. Sessions has frequently traveled with Mr. Trump and was said at one point to be under consideration as the vice-presidential nominee.

Mr. Sessions has long considered it a personal triumph that he was elected to the Senate and became a member of the Judiciary Committee after that same panel rejected his nomination to the bench. Two Republicans joined Democrats in opposing his nomination. One of those Republicans, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, later said his vote had been a mistake--a fact that Mr. Sessions likes to point out.

But Mr. Sessions’ 1968 hearings were unusually rancorous, both for the era and for the position he was seeking. The sessions stretched for hours as Justice Department officials were called to testify about their colleague’s views on race. Mr. Sessions said his comment about the Klan was meant as a joke and said it was so preposterous--especially since he was in the middle of prosecuting a case involving the group--that he thought nobody could take it seriously.

He was less clear about his remarks about civil rights groups. Asked whether he ever said the N.A.A.C.P. hates white people or was “a commie group and a pinko organization” Mr. Sessions said he could not recall specifically saying that. “I am loose with my tongue on occasion, and I may have said something similar to that or could be interpreted to that,” he testified.

He went on to praise the N.A.A.C.P. for its work for racial equality in the South. He said he never called the group or the A.C.L.U. un-American, but added: “I said that they take positions that are considered un-American. They hurt themselves; they lose credibility. And many people do think that some of those positions they take are against the national interests of the United States.” He said he was referring to liberal immigration policies and support for the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

At the Justice Department today, lawyers regard N.A.A.C.P. officials as partners in the fight for equal rights. “Laws alone do not guarantee justice, eradicate hate or advance freedom,” Vanita Gupta, the Obama administration’s top civil rights prosecutor, told the group in July. “People do. People like you do. Organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. do.”

The N.A.A.C.P. also played a key role in fighting to integrate the military. The percentage of African-Americans in the military--now 17 percent--has grown steadily since President Harry S. Truman signed an order in 1948 that ended segregation in the armed forces.

Mr. Sessions also did not dispute Mr. Hebert’s recollection of their conversation about the white lawyer. He said he remembered the conversation, but not precisely what he said. “I guess I will not disagree with him,” Mr. Sessions testified, “and I do not know why--I cannot imagine why I would make that comment.”

An African-American prosecutor, Thomas H. Figures, testified that Mr. Sessions referred to him as “boy.” Once, after an argument with a secretary, “Mr. Sessions admonished me to ‘be careful what you say to white folks,’” Mr. Figures testified. Mr. Sessions denied saying that and was adamant that he had never called Mr. Figures “boy.”

Mr. Sessions had his supporters, including an Alabama judge, Ferrill D. McRae. “I have watched this young man since he started practicing law in Mobile,” Judge McRae wrote. “He is honest, hard-working, fair and compassionate for all his fellow man.”

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Mr. Hebert said it was a “frightening thought” that Mr. Sessions might lead the Justice Department. As for the Pentagon, he said, “His racial insensitivity might not be as manifest in such a position, but I wouldn’t feel good about it if I were a Black soldier.”

Former U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (Rep., Ala.) is said to be President-Elect Donald J. Trump’s choice to be attorney general.

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