WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican Luther Strange, Alabama's attorney general, was sworn in on Thursday to fill the Senate seat left empty by Jeff Sessions, tapped by President Donald Trump to be the nation's top law enforcement officer.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, administered the oath to Strange, a well-connected Republican and former Washington lobbyist. Attorney General Sessions and Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama were at Strange's side in the well of the Senate, and applause filled the chamber after the oath.
Strange joins the Senate after Sessions' confirmation as U.S. attorney general Wednesday night. The 63-year-old lawyer has been the state's attorney general since 2011. His selection caps two months of jockeying and political guessing games over who would get the nod from Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley.
The appointment comes two months after Strange asked the Alabama House Judiciary Committee to pause an impeachment probe of Bentley, who was accused last year of having an affair with a onetime top political adviser.
Bentley has acknowledged making personal mistakes, but denied doing anything legally wrong.
Strange, sometimes referred to as "Big Luther" because of his 6-foot-9 frame, announced last year his intentions to run for the coveted Senate seat regardless of whether he got the interim appointment.
"It is the honor of my life," Strange said at a news conference in which Bentley signed the official appointment letter. "I'm very excited about this opportunity to head to Washington in this historic time in our nation's history."
After the swearing-in, Strange reprised the event for cameras in the Old Senate Chamber, where senators met until 1859. This time, Vice President Mike Pence presided over the re-enactment. Hatch, who earlier in the day was honored as the longest-serving Republican senator in the nation's history, also attended. He said he told his new colleague to relax and pay attention to everything that was going on around him. With a nod to some of the contentious debates that have occurred in the Senate recently, Hatch smiled and said, "It's going to be very interesting for him, I think."
Strange will serve until an election is held to fill the seat for the remainder of Sessions' term, which ends in January of 2020. Bentley has said that seat will be filled as part of the general election in 2018.
Bentley said Strange stood out as the clear choice, noting that Strange is well-known in Washington and already had proven he could win a statewide election.
"He is going to do a fantastic job for this state," Bentley said Thursday. "Luther and I both agree that the federal government should not intrude on states' rights," Bentley said.
In elevating Strange to the U.S. Senate, Bentley also will have the authority to appoint a state attorney general to fulfill the remainder of Strange's term.
The lawmaker who spearheaded the legislative impeachment effort against Bentley, state Rep. Ed Henry, said Strange's appointment to the Senate seat "looks bad." He said he didn't understand how Strange could stop an impeachment proceeding and then petition for an appointment by the very person he stopped the impeachment for.
"The air of corruption is thick," Henry said.
On Thursday, Strange defended his decision to pause the impeachment investigation, saying a Nov. 3 letter to the Alabama House committee was sent "before there was even a presidential election." It was Trump's victory that led to the Senate vacancy.
At the time he sent the letter, Strange said his office was doing "related work," though he never publicly elaborated on what it involved or when the work would be completed. The letter raised questions about what role Strange's office had in the investigation.
"We have never said in our office that we are investigating the governor," Strange said Thursday.
He said he trusted his chief deputy Alice Martin, who will take over as acting attorney general until Bentley names a replacement, will handle the matter appropriately.
Strange is a graduate of Tulane University, where he played basketball on scholarship, and of Tulane Law school.
Under Strange's direction, Alabama also was one of 25 states that challenged then-President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And even though he was recused from the investigation, Strange's office also angered some influential Republicans over a 2016 prosecution of the state's Republican House speaker at the time.
Shelby said he looked forward to working with Strange in the Senate. He said he's known the newest senator for 35 years and had recommended Strange to the governor.
"I said, 'Governor, make a good appointment,' and I told him Luther would be a good man. He was considering other people, too," Shelby said.
Strange is the not the first senator by that name. North Carolina's Robert Strange served from Dec. 5, 1836 to Nov. 16, 1840.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the impeachment campaign was against Bentley, not Strange.