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Sen. Sessions Has The Experience To Be Attorney General, Gonzales Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, the first of President-elect Trump's Cabinet choices goes before a Senate committee, and it's one of the most important jobs - attorney general of the United States.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The president-elect's choice is Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. He was an early Trump supporter, in fact one of the few lawmakers in Congress who stood behind Trump since 2015.

INSKEEP: And in today's program, we're hearing two very different views of him. Sessions has been criticized because he lost a bid to be a federal judge many years ago because of alleged racial remarks.

MARTIN: There's a lot more to his record, ranging from his youth in a tiny Alabama town to his passionate opposition to illegal immigration.

INSKEEP: Now, he is poised to run a department that oversees the FBI and federal prosecutors and touches on many parts of American life. His supporters include Alberto Gonzales who served as attorney general under President George W. Bush.

What's Senator Sessions like personally?

ALBERTO GONZALES: He's very friendly. You know, he's from the South, and he's very upfront. And he and I didn't always agree when I was the attorney general on issues, but he was fair and he was tough on the department, which I think is perfectly legitimate. And given his background both at the state and federal level, he has a great deal of interest and knowledge about the workings of the Department of Justice.

INSKEEP: I guess we should remind people he was a federal prosecutor, meaning he was an employee once upon a time at the Department of Justice.

GONZALES: And not only that, he was state attorney general for Alabama. So he has the experience of actually running something. You know, sometimes I kind of worry about people coming to the executive branch positions and not having any experience running some things.

INSKEEP: What is the challenge for Senator Sessions if he becomes attorney general, in that he's a conservative guy and in many instances his views are more conservative than the law is at the moment, issues like gay rights, for example, or torturing people?

GONZALES: Well, I know I'm not - I don't know that I would go so far as to say he supports torture. The Bush administration never supported torture. We worked very hard to ensure that the guidance that was given to the Bush administration was consistent with the anti-torture statute.

INSKEEP: I guess we should just note the Bush administration insisted that interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, were not torture. In any case, it appears those techniques are banned by a law in 2015.

GONZALES: That is correct.

INSKEEP: But Senator Sessions voted against that law. And of course, he'd be working for a president who has said he wants to bring back torture and explicitly calls waterboarding a minimal form of torture. What is the job of the attorney general in a case like that where your president may want to do things that are illegal?

GONZALES: Well, his job is to inform the president of the policies that are inconsistent with the law. And I have every expectation that Jeff Sessions as the attorney general would do that. Now, honestly, the president is head of the executive branch, and he could have the final say if he chooses to exercise his authority on the law. And he may decide that the law passed by Congress is unconstitutional given certain circumstances that may unduly restrict his authority as commander in chief to protect this country. But whenever a president acts inconsistent with advice given by the attorney general of the Department Justice, he does so at political peril.

INSKEEP: What is the attorney general's role in enforcing immigration laws?

GONZALES: Well, the attorney general will certainly have a say, will have a role in advocating the policies desired by the administration in terms of immigration laws. The attorney general also has a very interesting power that's not as widely known, which is on appeals for decisions relating to deportations. There's a court of immigration review and a court of immigration appeal within the Department of Justice so that if someone facing deportation, a decision is made to deport them, that gets reviewed. An additional power the attorney general has - he also has the power to override all of that and ultimately step into a case and make a final decision as to whether or not they should be deported.

INSKEEP: So the attorney general has an opportunity in specific cases to come down and say, I know you're about to be deported, but I'm going to save you; or the opposite - I know you might stay, but I'm going to send you out. And that sends a signal, almost like the Federal Reserve sends a signal with its interest rates. It influences what everybody else does.

GONZALES: That is correct, and that is also something - it sets a precedent for the Department of Justice but also to the extent that these cases ever get litigated in our federal courts, this is, you know, a precedent that the federal courts can look at as well.

INSKEEP: One other thing - suppose that the FBI is still investigating Russian hacking during the election campaign, the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and so forth, and FBI agents begin to say they're finding something of interest that might be uncomfortable for the sitting president by then, what is the attorney general's duty and obligation in that case?

GONZALES: I take from your question you want to know whether or not can the White House direct the Department of Justice to drop the investigation. They could direct that because the attorney general works for the president of the United States but, again, serious political peril for doing so. Now, the White House may have information that the department may not have and, as a result of that, they may communicate that information which may cause the attorney general to reconsider. So, you know, there are all kinds of complicating factors that have to be weighed here. But as a general manner, you know, it's not a good idea to have the White House weighing in and directing the department what to do. That doesn't place the president in a very good position, quite frankly. You want to be careful about that.

INSKEEP: Are you confident, then, that Jeff Sessions is the kind of person who, though he has a close relationship with the president-elect, will tell him what he needs to hear, say no when he needs to say no and protect the independence of investigators wherever they might go, whatever they might be looking at?

GONZALES: I have every expectation that he will do so. I don't know the extent of that relationship, what the relationship was like before the campaign. I know people worry about if you're close to the president you can't tell him no. I think it's just the opposite. The other unknown quantity for me, however, is I don't know how Donald Trump - how he feels or how he deals with lawyers and how he deals with advice given to him by lawyers or not - that's not good news. You know, you can tell a lot about a person when you give them bad news and how they deal with it. But, again, based on what I know, I have every expectation that Jeff Sessions will do the job that needs to be done as the attorney general United States.

INSKEEP: Alberto Gonzales, thanks very much.

GONZALES: It's my pleasure.

INSKEEP: He served as attorney general under President George W. Bush and is now the dean of the Belmont University College of Law in Nashville, Tenn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.