WASHINGTON (AP) - Former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions was sworn in as President Donald Trump's attorney general Thursday, pledging to fight a crime problem he described as "a dangerous, permanent trend that places the health and safety of the American people at risk."
"We will employ the talents and abilities of the Department of Justice in the most effective way possible to confront this rise in crime and to protect the people of our country," Sessions said after Vice President Mike Pence administered the oath to the nation's top law enforcement official following a contentious confirmation process.
Trump used the ceremony in the Oval Office to announce three executive orders that aim to crack down on gang violence, drug trafficking and crimes against police. One directs the Justice Department to form a task force to reduce violent crime, even though the murder rate has fallen sharply in recent decades.
Trump said he was seeking “to break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth.” The cartel task force would partner the DOJ and the Department of Homeland Security.
“A new era of justice begins and it begins right now,” Trump said at the ceremony.
Law and order was a central theme of Trump’s campaign, during which he also pushed his hardline immigration policies. But he has also prioritized tackling violent crime, recently promising on Twitter that if Chicago didn’t get its crime problem under control, he would “send in the Feds.”
Still, Sessions used his first day on the job to meet with law enforcement leaders for what the department later described as a "vigorous discussion about how to combat the rise in violent crime and prevent drug-related deaths."
Sessions, among the Senate's most conservative lawmakers, had promised wholesale changes to the department and hard-line stances on immigration, crime, drug policy and guns, in tune with Trump's tough-on-crime agenda.
The Republican lawmaker resigned his Senate seat shortly after his colleagues confirmed him on a 52-47 vote that fell largely along party lines. He had faced fierce opposition from Democrats over his record on civil rights and immigration.
The department said Sessions on Thursday reached out to the National Urban League and the NAACP, as well as to national police organizations, to share with them his priorities.
Sessions told Justice Department employees in a video message that the rule of law transcends politics, and he urged them to work together alongside him regardless of political values.
"In this rule of law, we are blessed beyond all nations," he said. "And at this department we must do all we can to ensure that it is preserved and advanced. Such ideals transcend politics. When one is standing in court, representing the United States, there is no place for partisanship or bias."