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Leahy Has Concerns About Trump's Pick For Attorney General, Jeff Sessions

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Critics and supporters alike of President-elect Trump have been watching his Cabinet choices to see what they say about him. Few may be more revealing than his choice for attorney general who gets a Senate hearing today.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Senator Jeff Sessions has loyally supported Trump. He's a passionate opponent of illegal immigration.

INSKEEP: Back in 1986, he lost a chance at a federal judgeship because of alleged racial remarks. He also has a compelling story of his slow rise to power from his childhood in a tiny crossroads town in Alabama.

MARTIN: We're hearing two very different perspectives on Sessions this morning. One is from former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, he supports Sessions.

INSKEEP: The other is a member of the Senate committee that will consider Sessions, his colleague, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

So I just want to begin on a personal level. What's Senator Sessions like as a colleague?

PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I know him well, of course. I've served with him. We get along fine, but we have some very, very major philosophical differences. He's opposed protections for LGBT individuals. He's spoken out against Freedom Corps' marriage equality decision. He opposed the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He opposed the nomination of Loretta Lynch, the nation's first African-American woman to serve as attorney general. These things worry me.

INSKEEP: Now, with that said, Senator Leahy, the fact that you disagree with him on a great many issues, how significant is that if he's attorney general and his job is not to advocate his personal beliefs but to enforce the law?

LEAHY: Well, it becomes very important because remember the attorney general is not a member of the president's staff. He's the attorney general of the United States. He's there to represent all of us, and it means all the laws have to be enforced fairly. And you can't bring your individual prejudices in there. And I want to be assured that he wouldn't. So I think we have to ask, what is he thinking?

INSKEEP: Well, this is what I'm wondering, though, when I say enforce the law. I'm thinking of John Ashcroft, one of President Bush's attorneys general, someone who's also very conservative and I'm sure you disagreed with on a great many issues. But we found out after the fact that in the internal debate over how far torture interrogations should go in the Bush administration, Ashcroft in a dramatic moment refused to go along with the administration. He had a view of the law and he stuck with that. Is it possible that Senator Sessions could do the same?

LEAHY: Well, that, I think, he should be asked. I think he's got to prove he's changed since 1986 because the attorney general really has to stand up for everybody in this country. I remember when I was in law school, the then-attorney general tried to hire me to come with the Department of Justice. I asked him what he would do if he had somebody come up for a prosecution that was a friend of the president's. And he said if they were - should be prosecuted, they'd be prosecuted. And that's exactly what Robert Kennedy did when he prosecuted one of his brother's friends and supporters.

INSKEEP: Robert Kennedy, who was the attorney general for John F. Kennedy in the 1960s.

LEAHY: That's right.

INSKEEP: Are you posing here really a fundamental question that you would have for Senator Sessions or any attorney general nominee? Are you willing to let the FBI, for example, pursue an investigation even if it goes into the president's business affairs or into his relationship with Russia or anything else that people wonder about?

LEAHY: If there is a sign of criminal activity, you've got to let it go wherever it goes. You can't pick and choose. And I was a prosecutor for eight years. I remember I was - sometimes say, OK, I got to prosecute a friend, but they've committed a crime. You have to do it. It's even more important for the integrity of the country if there are conflicts of interest in an administration, if there are things being done that they shouldn't do - and I hope there won't be, but if there were, you have to go and prosecute.

INSKEEP: Do you have any sense of whether Senator Sessions would have that independence?

LEAHY: Well, I was concerned when he immediately jumped forward even on the outrageous comments that Donald Trump made about justifying sexual abuse of women, that he supported him. That was - seems so easy to say, look, I don't support that, yet he stepped forward and supported it. I don't want somebody as attorney general who thinks he has to rubberstamp whatever the president says.

INSKEEP: One other thing, Senator Leahy. Democrats have wanted to draw out the hearing process for people such as Senator Sessions. Do you, Democrats in the Senate, intend to continue to draw that out and raise questions? I know you have the right, for example, to demand extended debate before there's a full Senate vote. Are you going to take this as long as you can take it?

LEAHY: Well, I'll leave that to the leaders and our leader. But I think that we should not delay for the sake of delay, but delay until questions are answered. We have a whole lot of the president-elect's nominees that have not filled out their ethics disclosures. I can never remember a time when anybody was voted on for a Cabinet position who hadn't completed their ethics report, and certainly nobody should be allowed to vote until that's done.

INSKEEP: Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, thanks very much.

LEAHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.