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Sessions Looks to Face Tougher Grilling for Attorney General Job Than Trump's CIA Pick

Then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), chat during committee meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 13, 2010. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump’s nominations to lead the Justice Department and Central Intelligence Agency received mixed reactions today, with the harshest criticism from Democrats reserved for the position that will not come before the Senate for conformation — national security advisor.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) was the first senator to endorse Trump, and in the 1980s and early ’90s was U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.

After the news broke of Trump’s pick for the nation’s top cop, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said Sessions “will make a great attorney general.”

“The attorney general has the responsibility to act as an independent public servant who will uphold the law and keep our communities safe,” Toomey said. “Jeff will do just that.”

“Jeff has been a strong advocate for our men and women in uniform, and for our nation’s safety and security,” Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said. “He has also shown a willingness to listen to and work with senators on both sides of the aisle. I support his nomination to be the next attorney general, and I look forward to his timely and fair hearing in the Senate.”

The chairman who will preside over that hearing, Judiciary Committee leader Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), predicted Sessions’ nomination will pass the committee.

“Sen. Sessions is a respected member and former ranking member of the Judiciary Committee who has worked across the aisle on major legislation,” Grassley said. “He knows the Justice Department as a former U.S. attorney, which would serve him very well in this position.”

Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) said “the American people deserve to learn about Senator Sessions’ record at the public Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.”

“The attorney general must be independent and fair. The attorney general must be deeply committed to the rule of law and must ensure that all people are treated equally before the law. This means that he or she is also the chief protector of civil rights and civil liberties for everyone in our nation,” Leahy said. “That has never been more important than in this moment, when hate crimes have spiked across the country, especially against Muslim and LGBTQ Americans. And when we have a president-elect who has proposed religious tests, a return to torture, and a deportation force that threatens to remove millions of immigrants.”

Leahy acknowledged he and Sessions “have had significant disagreements over the years, particularly on civil rights, voting rights, immigration and criminal justice issues,” but “unlike Republicans’ practice of unprecedented obstruction of President Obama’s nominees, I believe nominees deserve a full and fair process before the Senate.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who will be the top Judiciary Dem in the next Congress, stressed that “the attorney general is the lawyer for the people, not the president.”

“His or her primary loyalty must be to the Constitution and the rule of law — and sometimes that means telling the president no,” she said. “Senator Sessions has served on the Senate Judiciary Committee for many years so he’s well aware of the thorough vetting he’s about to receive.”

Trump picked Tea Party Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas), a member of the House Intelligence Committee and the Select Committee on Benghazi, to lead the CIA. He served in the Army and was an attorney before entering Congress in 2011.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said he was “confident” that Pompeo’s nomination “will be widely supported within the CIA.”

“Mike has spent an immense amount of time in the field all across the world meeting with our intelligence professionals and service members on behalf of the House Intelligence Committee,” Nunes said. “One of the most respected voices in the House of Representatives on national security issues, Mike will undoubtedly develop a close working relationship with Congress in his new post.”

Former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who quit Trump’s transition team on Monday, said that “once confirmed,,” Pompeo’s “military and legal backgrounds will serve him well in one of the United States government’s most demanding jobs.”

“As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, I watched how Mike Pompeo worked. Smartly, deliberately, and quietly,” Rogers added. “That ethos will fit in perfectly at CIA.”

The leading Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), told CNN that Pompeo is “very well qualified” and “a solid pick.”

“A very smart guy. Hard working. He can be partisan. We’ve certainly had our differences over Benghazi. But I’m confident he’ll put that aside,” Schiff said. “The CIA role is a role of supplying the best intelligence to the administration and the Congress. And I know he’ll play a very good role and do a very good job.”

Schiff, who said he’d spoken with Pompeo already to offer his congratulations, said he thinks the Kansas lawmaker’s nomination won’t be all that controversial with Senate Dems.

“There will certainly be apprehension about the very vocal role in Benghazi. He was among just a couple of members to file a dissenting report to even the majority report, not feeling the majority report was strong enough,” he noted. “But he’s a very talented guy. I think he will do his homework. He’ll do the very best to manage the agency well. I have a lot of confidence in his abilities.”

Schiff wasn’t feeling so positive about Trump’s pick for national security advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“One, on a lot of policy matters, his views really scare me, frankly. He has difficult time differentiating between the entire faith of Islam and those who pervert it, like al-Qaeda and ISIS. A lot of his statements are inflammatory that play into the narrative that ISIS has that it’s the West against Islam. Very concerned about that,” the top House Intelligence Dem continued.

“Also, profound questions about his temperament. This is someone, I think, at DIA, had a reputation of being very hotheaded. Not a consensus builder. In the NSA position, you need to bring together disparate voices within the national security infrastructure to come together on tough policy. Those aren’t really his skills… in running an agency, in tamping down the impulsive nature of the president-elect, to have another volatile character in the Oval Office scares me.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, noted that “Trump has vowed to be a president for all Americans, but, with his selection of General Flynn, I don’t think he is making good on that promise.”

“I know that General Flynn and I are united in our goal of defeating and destroying ISIS, but the inflammatory and hateful remarks he has made only further fuel those who wish to do us harm,” Carper said. “In order to continue to take the fight to ISIS on the battlefield, we must be ready to keep working with Muslim Americans as well as our allies abroad from predominantly Muslim countries, and offensive generalizations about Islam are not only uncalled for, but entirely unproductive.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-Md.), sponsor of the Magnitsky Act signed in 2012 to sanction Russian officials involved in the death of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, said he’s “disturbed by General Flynn’s relationships and ties with Russian actors,” among other issues.

“I am concerned about General Flynn’s relationship with RT, a television network funded by the Russian government and well-known for promoting the Kremlin’s political agenda, but which Flynn has characterized as no different than CNN or MSNBC. General Flynn was paid to attend RT’s 10-year anniversary gala in Russia, where he gave a talk on world affairs and was photographed sitting next to Russian President Vladimir Putin – a photograph Mr. Putin has used repeatedly to promote his own causes,” Cardin said. “…I have serious questions about the fact that while General Flynn was sitting in on the classified national security briefings given to Donald Trump since August 2016, his lobbying firm, the Flynn Intel Group, was providing foreign government clients with ‘all-source intelligence support.’”

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a member of Trump’s transition team, told MSNBC today that Trump “is taking a non-traditional and unexpected approach.”

Asked about Flynn’s assertions that people are talking too tough on Russia and Vladimir Putin, Blackburn replied, “What we have to do is look at the fact that Russia is intertwining themselves with other countries. Whether it is China, whether it is Iran, whether it is other nation states, if you will, who have cyber warfare units. So Russia is not singular unto itself. And having individuals there that understand the way these threats move, the way they coalesce and form their participations I think is important.”

“Looking at China and their propensity for embedding hardware. Indeed, The New York Times had an article in this week about their embedding spyware into their hardware, and looking at these points of vulnerability in the virtual space,” Blackburn added. “That is something that you want your NSA director and your CIA director to have an appreciation and an understanding for as well as the physical threat.”