Senator Jeff Sessions was sworn in as the next U.S. attorney general Thursday at the White House, where he stressed that the U.S. needs a “lawful system of immigration” that serves the interest of the American people.
President Donald Trump lauded Sessions with praise as he congratulated him on being sworn in, calling the new attorney general “a man of total, utter resolve.”
“He has devoted his life to the cause of justice and believes deeply that all people are equals in the eyes of the law. And very importantly for Jeff and for so many of us also in the eyes of God,” Trump said.
WATCH: Trump remarks at swearing-in ceremony
The U.S. Senate confirmed Sessions on Wednesday, after more than a day of heated debate and a dramatic confrontation that led to the suspension of a prominent Democrat from floor deliberations.
The 52-47 vote made Sessions, a long-serving Republican senator from Alabama, America’s top law enforcement officer and the sixth Cabinet pick approved in the Trump administration.
During the swearing in ceremony, Sessions said he never imagined he would have “this great honor” of becoming attorney general and he cares deeply about the agency’s “traditions and its heritage.
“I had 15 years in that great department,” Sessions said. “And the honor to lead it now is something I do not have words to express effectively.”
WATCH: Sessions swearing-in ceremony
On the subject of immigration, Sessions vowed to uphold laws that he said were largely unenforced during the Obama administration.
“That’s not wrong, that’s not immoral, and that’s not indecent … We need to end this lawlessness that threatens the public’s safety, pulls down wages of working Americans,” he said. “If you continually go through a cycle of amnesty [for the undocumented], that you undermine the respect for the law and encourage more illegal immigration into America.”
An early and ardent Trump supporter during last year’s tumultuous campaign, Sessions pledged to put the law above politics as attorney general.
“You simply have to help the president do things that he might desire in a lawful way, and have to be able to say ‘no’ [to the president],” the nominee said at his confirmation hearing last month.
Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Democrats said they were unconvinced.
“We have a president who wants to bring back torture,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. “And we have a nominee for attorney general who is anything but independent. He was part and parcel of the Trump campaign apparatus.
Republicans noted that Trump is hardly the first president to name backers and close confidants to his administration.
“This idea that Senator Sessions was close to President Trump during the campaign and that’s somehow a disqualifier makes absolutely zero sense to me,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “That’s exactly the kind of people you’d expect a president to pick: someone who has been on their team, someone they know.”
Sessions served in the Senate for 20 years and also was attorney general for the state of Alabama as well as a federal prosecutor. In 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan tapped him to be a federal judge, but the Senate voted down his nomination amid allegations of racial bias in his past.
Echoes of that debate more than 30 years ago reverberated Tuesday, when Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts read a letter the late wife of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had written opposing Sessions for the federal bench.
“Mr. Sessions ignored allegations of similar behavior by whites, choosing instead to chill the exercise of the franchise by blacks,’” Warren said, reading the letter word-for-word.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, interrupted her remarks moments later.
“The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” McConnell said.
“Objection is heard, the senator [Warren] will take her seat,” said the presiding officer, Republican Senator Steve Daines of Montana.
Warren challenged the finding, forcing a vote on the dispute by the full Senate. A unified Republican caucus voted that Warren broke Senate rules on decorum and therefore was barred from speaking further on the nominee.