Attorney General Jeff Sessions steps back into a familiar arena Tuesday when he testifies before the Senate intelligence committee about his role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the investigation into contacts between Trump campaign associates and Russia.
Last week, Comey raised additional questions about Sessions’ involvement, saying the FBI knew of reasons why it would be problematic for the attorney general to stay involved in the Russia investigation well before Sessions recused himself in March. Comey declined to elaborate in an open setting and Sessions accepted the intelligence committee’s invitation to appear in part so he could address those comments.
The former Republican senator took over the Justice Department with a tough-on-crime agenda that included quashing illegal immigration, rooting out drug gangs and leading the charge in helping cities fight spikes in violence. But the Russia investigation continues to cast a shadow over his tenure.
A look at the man who has become a key figure in the probe:
Who is Jeff Sessions?
Blunt and plainspoken, Sessions, 70, went from a GOP foot soldier to prosecutor to politician and ultimately one of President Donald Trump’s leading champions, sharing his hardline views on national security and immigration. Trump rewarded his loyalty on the campaign by tapping him as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
Sessions is a devout Methodist who came of age in the segregated South. He cut his teeth as a federal prosecutor in Mobile, Alabama, at the height of the drug war, and many of the policies he has tried to implement as attorney general have roots in that time period. As a U.S attorney in 1986, Sessions faced allegations of racially charged remarks, and they cost him a federal judgeship. Sessions has called those allegations “false charges,” and said they were hurtful and has tried to move past them.
What were his Senate priorities?
Sessions generally leaned right of his Republican colleagues, often articulating more conservative views than those of party leaders in the Senate.
Sessions was a leading opponent of the Senate’s 2013 immigration overhaul, which he called too permissive. He instead advocated for broad presidential powers to curtail immigration, an issue that drew him to candidate Trump early. He opposed efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, supported expanded government surveillance and criticized the Voting Rights Act as placing an unfair burden on states. He joined a bipartisan push to reduce federal sentencing disparities that treated crack cocaine offenses much more harshly than crimes related to powder cocaine, a disparity that disproportionally impacted minority communities. But he later opposed the Senate’s effort to overhaul the criminal justice system, warning it could lead to violence.
What has he done in the Justice Department?
As attorney general, Sessions has quickly worked to undo Obama-era policies. He signaled his strong support for the federal government’s continued use of private prisons, reversing a directive to phase out their use. He also recently directed the nation’s federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges possible against the vast majority of suspects, a rollback of Obama-era policies that aimed to reduce the federal prison population and show more lenience to lower-level drug offenders.
Keeping with the Trump administration’s anti-immigration agenda, Sessions has also urged federal prosecutors to intensify their focus on immigration crimes such as illegal border crossing or smuggling others into the U.S. And he has threatened to withhold coveted grant money from localities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities as they try to detain and deport people.
What’s the trouble?
Sessions has been dogged by the Russia investigation. He recused himself from the federal probe in March after acknowledging that he met twice last year with the Russian ambassador to the United States. He told lawmakers at his January confirmation hearing that he had not met with Russians during the campaign.
Questions are swirling about possible additional encounters with the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Senate Democrats have raised questions about whether the men met at an April 2016 foreign policy event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. The Justice Department has said that while Sessions was there, for a speech by Trump, there were no meetings or private encounters.