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  All In With Chris Hayes  MSNBC  November 18, 2016 8:02pm-8:15pm PST

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describing him as a hot head with an abusive leadership style. and that brings us to trump's choice for attorney general. that's alabama senator jeff sessions. he was an early supporter of donald trump in the presidential campaign. sessions is generally well liked by his senate colleagues. senate, of course, must confirm him for this position, but sessions did run into trouble 30 years ago back in 1986 when he was the united states attorney and nominated by reagan for a judgeship. accused of making racially insensitive comments. telling the committee that sessions had called him boy and had warned him, quote, to be careful what you say to white folks. what we're about to show you now is an nbc news report from that time, from the controversial sessions nomination battle back in 1986. this is reporter ken bodie, the date, march 17th, 1986. >> mr. sessions is a thoughback
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to a shameful era which i know both black and white americans thought was in our past. it's inconceivable to me that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a u.s. attorney let alone a united states federal judge. >> jefferson beauregard sessions iii, he was brought face-to-face with things he personally had said. for example, that the naacp and the civil liberties union are un-american organizations. >> these comments that you could say about county organization or something, i may have said something like that in a general way and this probably was wrong. >> also brought face-to-face with the justice department civil rights attorney who knows him well and who was asked, is sessions a racist? >> i don't really know whether he is or he isn't. i probably ought to know, but i don't. i really can't say. >> but the would-be judge's biggest problem came in a case he prosecuted and lost. a vote fraud case involving black civil rights leaders in perry county, alabama.
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defendants in the perry county case were albert and evelyn turner, political and civil rights leaders for more than 20 years. albert was an aide to martin luther king. their scrapbook has all the marches. >> this is bloody sunday. albert, you can see, that's him right there. >> albert turner guided the mules at dr. king's funeral. the federal government charged the turners with doctors absentee ballots, vote fraud and mail fraud. >> my own opinions is that the case is political. i actually don't think jeff session and them came in with an ounce of evidence. >> blacks charge harassment by u.s. attorney jeff sessions, noting there was no investigation of white vote fraud. the justice department says it had no complaints about white vote fraud. jack drake a tuscaloosa civil rights attorney says they might have found plenty of white vote fraud had they looked for it. >> i'm seeing letters from the concerned citizens of sumter county saying we know you don't live here anymore, but we want
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you to vote here. >> that the federal government got involved in a local struggle over the courthouse. >> i think the motivation came from the whites who live there who are really desperate when they start to think about losing control of the county courthouse. >> the original complaint came two years earlier from the local district attorney. >> i gave them my preliminary investigative report and advised them of the situation here and asked for their assistance. >> roy johnson showed us the original impounded ballots. he said the turners changed the ballots. >> ballots were changed from the way people cast them. >> johnson turned it over to jeff sessions and asked the u.s. attorney to monitor the 1984 primary election. >> i told him basically what i just outlined, that we had sheer fraud here in the balloting process in the county. >> some blacks whose absentee ballots were changed were bused to mobile to testify. everything went smoothly.
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others say they were terrified. >> i don't believe those people who were carried to mobile in that bus will ever vote again. >> the case was tried last summer. albert and evelyn turner were found not guilty. jeff sessions declined to talk to the news but his friends and supporters told us he's not a racist and the just department says sessions had a good case. jack drake disagrees. >> i don't think the government had a case. the impetus was to keep blacks from voting, to intimidate people. >> albert turner does not want jeff sessions on the federal bench. >> a man like jeff sessions will be there for such a long period of time. and i honestly think that he'll be in the way of progress in this area for quite a while. >> i believe a disgrace to the justice department and he should withdraw his nomination and resign his position.
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>> that's an nbc news piece from march 17, 1986, ken bodie reporting there. jeff sessions was ultimately rejected in that battle for the federal judgeship by the senate judiciary committee. at the time that committee was ruled by republicans. years later will he face similar opposition as he tries to become the attorney general of the united states? joining me now from the trump national golf club in new jersey, that's where trump's transition team is now holding its meetings, nbc news correspondent hallie jackson. 30 years ago jeff sessions could not get his nomination confirmed by the senate. he then went years later, got elected to the senate. now he'll have to go back in front of the senate for confirmation again. is there reason to believe he could be in trouble like he was three decades ago? >> frankly, steve, not particularly. let me explain why. given the rules of the senate jeff sessions would need 51 votes in order to move forward with this confirmation.
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republicans have 52 seats. there aren't any republicans who have come out against his confirmation. you got to start with the judiciary committee, right? all the republicans on that committee have come out today in support of senator sessions. you have not just the republicans who you would think would support jeff sessions but you have blake backing sessions. somebody like joe manchin from west virginia, a democrat coming out in support of sessions. susan collins, more moderate, coming out in support of sessions. there's not a lot of reason to believe that he'll have a ton of difficulty getting through this confirmation process. will he be asked difficult questions? likely. there's one source on capitol hill who told my colleague frank gore who covers the hill in his day job, given the past, the history that you just played in that piece from 1986, how is this person, how is jeff sessions is supposed to try to heal the nation's racial divide as the nation's top law enforcement official? i think that's a very real question that will come up.
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ultimately, though, it appears when you look at the numbers that sessions will be able to get through this process. the big question is what happens when it becomes attorney general jeff sessions? how does that inform not just policies for the united states, his immigration position, how does that inform some stances there? but what kind of influence does he have on president-elect trump who will then be president trump? how much of a vocal voice will sessions be in donald trump's cabinet? he's been, as you mentioned, one of his most loyal supporters, loyal and vocal surrogates. he was the first senator to come out and back donald trump. we saw him all the time on the campaign trail. how does that influence come to play out come january 20th? >> hallie jackson down there in bedminster, new jersey. thank you to both of you for joining us. so two sides of this question here i want to talk to you, matt, first of all, on the side
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supporting jeff sessions. so hallie jackson just answered the will he be confirmed question. it looks like the answer is likely to be yes there. let's tackle the question of should he be confirmed? we play that clip, 1986. this was the first federal judge nominee that reagan put up that actually got rejected by the senate. this is a republican senate, republican committee. that was the basis we just showed you in that tape for rejecting him. what's really changed in 30 years that would make you look at jeff sessions differently now? >> keep in mind he was an assistant u.s. attorney, full us attorney in the southern district of alabama, at the time confirmed by unanimous consent in the senate by joe biden and pat leahy, since then after he was not confirmed he was attorney general of alabama and then elected to the united states senate three or four times. he's been successful, he's also built up 20 years of relationships in the u.s. senate. when senators get put up for cabinet roles, it's very effective because they know they have the relationships at the committee level and on the floor to get the votes and work directly with them.
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his record has positive things when it comes to race as well. i hope they would consider these things. working with dick durbin to reduce crack penalties. many african-americans thought that was racially unfair. i think that's something you have to say. he campaigned against george wallace when he was a young man in alabama. that says a lot about his heart. so he's got a record on both sides. obviously, there's questions he's going to have to answer, but there's some facts here that need to be on the table. >> so let me ask you to pick up on that point. this was 30 years ago, what we just showed. since then jeff sessions has had a 20-year career in the u.s. senate also attorney general for alabama. have you seen anything in the 30 years since that would say, hey, this guy deserves a different result this time around? >> let me say at the outset, let me concede that jeff sessions voted for eric holder. let me also concede that he played an important role in passing the fair sentencing act.
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however, his record of hostility to voting rights obliterates the other positive things that he's done. and let me go back for a minute. the attorney general's position is the most important law enforcement position in the nation. the attorney general has a responsibility to ensure equal rights for all americans. but jeff sessions has shown both in his career as a u.s. attorney but also in his career as a united states senator, has been hostility to the enforcement of civil rights, particularly in the area of voting rights. i mean, this is a senator who rejected as a u.s. attorney, did play a very important role in the turner case. and i think that's something that has to be looked at. but he is also someone who had voted against, for example, the matthew shepard hate crime law. he showed hostility to the violence against women act. this is an individual who has shown a hostility to the enforcement of civil rights laws even though the position of attorney general would have a particular responsibility in that area.
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here's what's important, though, steve -- >> can i just ask you, though, to make the point but i want to follow up. how different does that make him -- this is a republican who just won the election for president, presumably -- >> sure. >> -- going to get a republican pick for attorney general. the other instances, the other cases, examples you're bringing up, how different is jeff sessions different than any other republican pick you're going to get? >> he's different in one fundamental way. what he has shown as a hostility to voting rights which from our standpoint is especially important. voting is the language of democracy. if you don't vote, you don't count. this is first election in our nation that did not have the full protection of the voting rights act. largely because the supreme court invalidated a key position three years ago. what we have shown in the study that we have done looking at how states like the state of alabama and others responded to that decision is that they closed over 800 polling places, steve, in the last three years largely because they could take those
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actions because of the supreme court decision. so we think that voting rights is a key issue that has to be elevated and it's especially ironic that after the election that we've had, which was an election that was influenced by voter manipulation, we have an individual nominated to be the chief law enforcement official of the united states who has a hostility towards protecting voting rights and protecting the interests of all americans. and in that regard, that disqualifies him in our view for the position of attorney general. >> and i want to get in on that question. he says hostile to voting rights. that case in 1984 was a part of that. do you believe there's been any evidence in sessions' history of hostility to voting rights? >> that's his opinion. i would have to look through the entire record. look, there are a lot of southern states that believe that the federal government shouldn't dictate to them how their states should be run. elections are not national, elections are run at the state level. i think i heard him say he has hostility towards civil rights,
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which is unfair, because he did vote for the extension of the civil rights. i think the record here is much more balanced if you look at the positive record and you have to balance all that at the end of the day he's going to be confirmed many times the party wants to embarrass one or two nominees to make the president realize that congress has a role. >> this isn't about embarrassing a nominee. it's about protecting the rights of american citizens and the issue of who should be the nation's top law enforcement official is one that's too important to ignore. the record speaks for itself. it's not just a hostility to voting rights, but a hostility to gay rights and women's rights. those things have to be taken