WASHINGTON: His white hair carefully combed and a calm demeanor that seems unflappable, Jeff Sessions above all radiates a reassuring good nature.
But this ultra-conservative close ally of President Donald Trump, who named him US attorney general, is a total tactician, a rod in the wind.
When the two 70-year-old men stand next to each other, the contrast is hard to imagine.
Trump is tall and hefty; the diminutive Sessions looks a little frail. The first is exuberant and his speech bombastic. The second has a piping voice and chooses his words carefully.
As for background and family, they underscore the opposites: Trump is a billionaire businessman born in New York; Sessions grew up in the segregated Deep South, where his father owned a store serving rural customers.
The first is criticized for his lavish tastes and over-the-top bling. The other is teased for his frugal lifestyle.
The president boasts about his female conquests and has been married three times, to an actress and two former models.
His faithful justice leader chose a schoolteacher who is active in local charities—the couple is nearing their 50th wedding anniversary.
Still, there is a crucial common point between Trump and Sessions: hardly anyone thought 15 months ago they would have a brilliant political future.
The first was a property tycoon and reality-television star. The second was a senator from the medium-sized state of Alabama and a marginal player in the Republican Party.
They forged an anti-establishment alliance and together fixed their ambitions on a path that led them to Washington. Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump during the campaign.
They share the same convictions about an America rotting from illegal immigration, where white workers are unfairly pushed aside, Christian values are no longer respected and public order is sacrificed to pervasive permissiveness.
Now Sessions is facing accusations that he lied under oath in his Senate confirmation hearing about his contacts last year with the Russian ambassador, at a time when Moscow was suspected of interfering in the US presidential election in favor of Trump.
On Thursday, facing calls for him to resign, Sessions, with a smile, said he was recusing himself from any investigation of the presidential campaign.
Shortly before his announcement, Trump had declared his “total” confidence in Sessions. The president would be extremely reluctant to lose his right arm.
Named after Confederate president
Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III received the first name of his father and his grandfather, who himself was named after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate southern states that fought to secede during the 19th century Civil War.
This context is important to understand the early days of the future senator, in an Alabama emerging with difficulty from a culture based on black slavery and racial segregation.
Sessions was born in Selma, a city known for its police brutality against peaceful protesters seeking equal rights for African-Americans.
For his critics, the University of Alabama law school graduate continues to display this racist heritage, and supports the death penalty while opposing abortion.
Controversial remarks he made during the 1980s have dogged his career, but did not derail his confirmation as attorney general last month, by a Republican-majority Senate.
He was a federal prosecutor in Alabama from 1981 to 1993, where his handling of several controversial cases saw him labeled racist by African-Americans.
In 1986 his nomination by president Ronald Reagan for a federal judgeship sparked a tide of anger from black people that led to his rejection.
During witness testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions admitted that— when told that a white lawyer had been called a “disgrace to his race” for defending African-Americans—he had responded by saying: “Well, maybe he is.”
Sessions is thought to have largely inspired Trump’s anti-immigration stance and crackdown on unauthorized immigrants.
As attorney general, he guides the central agency for enforcement of federal laws, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration. AFP