Updated 6:42 p.m. | Sen. Jeff Sessions made his case to be attorney general Tuesday, in a confirmation hearing punctuated by racially charged protesters and warnings from Democrats that minorities fear he wouldn’t protect their rights as the Justice Department leader.
The Alabama Republican decried accusations of racial insensitivity that sunk his 1986 nomination to be a federal judge as “damnably false,” and appealed to his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee to study his record of 20 years working beside them in the Senate.
“You know who I am. You know what I believe in. You know that I am a man of my word and can be trusted to do what I say I will do,” Sessions, 70, said. “You know that I revere our Constitution and am committed to the rule of law. And you know that I believe in fairness, impartiality, and equal justice under the law.”
The first day of the two-day hearing was poised to be contentious. A long list of civil rights groups argued that President-elect Donald Trump's choice for top law enforcement officer holds staunch policy stances that put him at odds with the Justice Department’s mission to enforce civil rights laws.
But Sessions escaped eight hours of testimony relatively unscathed by Democratic questioning, which Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas characterized as "showing admirable restraint." Sessions generally answered that he would follow the laws as written, evading firm positions on issues such as legalized marijuana and voter identification requirements.
Wednesday offers another shot at drama, when Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey — one of three black senators — takes an unprecedented step and testifies against Sessions' nomination. Other witnesses will include Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon.
The audience Tuesday reflected the divisions apparent after the election. Protestors interrupted the beginning of Sessions’ opening statement, shouting: “No Trump, No KKK, No fascist USA.” Earlier, two protestors wearing mock Ku Klux Klan garb shouted, “Sen. Sessions: Thank you so much for being here for us.” Capitol Police promptly ejected those who interrupted the hearing.
For his part, Sessions had law enforcement officials in the crowd who support his nomination stand up during one section of his statement — a sign of backing for his tough-on-crime stances. Also in the audience was Khizr Khan, the Muslim father of an American soldier killed in action who criticized Trump’s stances on Muslim immigrants from the stage of the Democratic National Convention last July. He opposes Sessions’ confirmation.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, spoke in her opening statement of the “deep anxiety” and fear of what a Trump administration would bring for minority communities with Sessions as attorney general.
“Communities across this country are concerned about whether they will be able to rely on the Department of Justice to protect their rights and freedoms,” she said.
Feinstein questioned Sessions about laws concerning minorities and women that came up during the presidential campaign. Sessions told Feinstein that he would follow what the Supreme Court had established as the law of the land in two contentious landmark decisions: Roe v. Wade, the 1973 opinion that established the constitutional right to an abortion, and Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 opinion that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, at times raising his voice slightly, asked Sessions about his votes against an update to a law to protect women from violence and a hate crime law to protect gays and lesbians. The Vermont Democrat asked if Sessions agreed with Trump’s campaign statements that the United States should deny entry to all members of a particular religion.
Sessions responded that Trump has subsequently said the focus should be on a strong vetting of immigrants from countries that have a history of terrorism. “I do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied entry into the United States,” Sessions said.
Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse asked Sessions if he could, as attorney general, investigate Russian interference in the presidential election and prosecute even the president, his family and associates if there were evidence of a crime. “If there are laws violated and they can be prosecuted, then, of course, you’ll have to handle that in an appropriate way,” Sessions said.
Standing up to Trump
Sessions made efforts to separate his political support of Trump with the job he would do at the DOJ. Under questioning from Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the committee chairman, Sessions said he would recuse himself from any investigation into losing Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, such as her emails while secretary of State and her family’s foundation.
“We can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute,” Sessions said. “This country does not punish its political enemies but this country ensures that no one is above the law.”
As the hearing was winding down, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota brought up a CNN report that classified documents presented to Trump include allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising information on the president-elect.
Franken asked Sessions what he would do as attorney general if the information is true.
“I am not aware of any of those activities,” Sessions said. “I have been called a surrogate a time or two during the campaign and I did not have contact with the Russians, and I am unable to comment.”
For much of Tuesday, however, Sessions was on defense, arguing he is strong on civil rights and highlighting desegregation lawsuits and other legal actions when he was a U.S. attorney in Alabama and legislation he has supported. His detractors point to the same history but come to a different conclusion.
“I deeply understand the history of civil rights and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters. I have witnessed it,” said Sessions, who grew up south of Montgomery, Alabama.
“The Department of Justice must never falter in its obligation to protect the civil rights of every American, particularly those who are most vulnerable,” he said. “A special priority for me in this regard will be aggressive enforcement of our laws to ensure access to the ballot for every eligible American voter, without hindrance or discrimination, and to ensure the integrity of the electoral process.”
Vouching for Sessions
“In fact, it would be fair to say that we have had our share of vigorous debates and policy disagreements,” Collins said. “Through these experiences, I have come to know Sen. Sessions professionally as a trusted colleague and personally, as a good friend. I can confidently vouch for the fact that Jeff Sessions is a person of integrity, a principled leader, and a dedicated public servant.”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, announced late Monday that he will support Sessions. Scott hosted Sessions in the Palmetto State last month so the nominee could meet with African-American pastors, law enforcement officers and leaders. Scott said he has found Sessions “to be a consistently fair person.”
Scott’s South Carolina colleague, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, used his questioning to make light of a letter of opposition to Sessions from more than 1,400 law professors representing all states but Alaska, where there is no law school.
“We’re about to get an answer to the age-old question: Can you get confirmed attorney general of the United States over the objection of 1,400 law professors,” said Graham, a Sessions supporter. “I don’t now what the betting line is in Vegas, but I like your chances.”
Sessions appears to have enough support from Senate Republicans to win confirmation.