WASHINGTON (CN) – At a marathon hearing on his confirmation Tuesday, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions – President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to serve as attorney general – defended his civil rights record and promised to enforce laws faithfully.
Sessions, one of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate, spent part of the more than 10-hour hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee defending himself against claims he made racist remarks while serving as a prosecutor, overzealously pursued a voter-fraud case against black defendants and expressed some sympathy for the KKK.
The former prosecutor fiercely denied these allegations, which sank his 1986 nomination to a federal judgeship, saying they created a “caricature” that did not represent his true views.
“It has been very disappointing and painful to have it suggested that I think the Klan was okay when we did everything possible to destroy or defeat and prosecute Klan members who were involved in this crime,” Sessions said.
Pushing back against criticism his prosecution of a voter-fraud case in Alabama as racially tinged, Sessions noted that the complainants in the case were also black and framed the case as about protecting the rights of minority voters.
He countered charges, including those shouted from protesters in the back of the room, that he harbors racist views by speaking proudly of his efforts to prosecute two members of the KKK who kidnapped and killed a black teenager.
“There is nothing I am more proud of than my 14 years of service in the Department of Justice,” Sessions said. “I love and venerate that great institution.”
The decades-old allegations against Sessions have received new life since his nomination, playing alongside a closer scrutiny of the conservative Republican’s voting record. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, is scheduled to testify against Sessions during the second day of the hearing.
A host of civil rights groups and a cadre of lawyers and legal scholars have vocally opposed Sessions’ nomination, writing letters and staging press conferences urging the Senate to reject him.
While Republicans generally lobbed questions at Sessions to allow him to easily rebuff liberal criticism that has swirled around him in recent weeks, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee were tougher on their long-time colleague.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, chairing her first hearing as the top Democrat on the committee, expressed concerns that Sessions – one of Trump’s first supporters – would be able to keep himself independent of the future president in order to faithfully enforce laws.
“There is deep fear on what a Trump administration will bring in many places, and this is the context in which we must consider Sen. Sessions’ record and qualifications to become the chief law enforcer for America,” Feinstein said. “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. These freedoms are so cherished, they are what make us unique among nations.”
Sessions tried to put these concerns to rest early in the hearing, saying he would call the president out when he overstepped his authority. A frequent critic of the Justice Department under Obama, Sessions said it is important for the agency to stay nonpartisan.
“You simply have to help the president do things that he might desire in a lawful way and you have to be able to say no, both for the country, for the legal system and for the president, to avoid situations that are not acceptable,” Sessions said.
Democrats attacked Sessions’ record, grilling him on his opposition to a version of the Violence Against Women Act, his past comments praising the Supreme Court’s decision to strip portions of the Voting Rights Act, his hardline immigration record and his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, had perhaps the most targeted questioning of Sessions, pressing the former prosecutor about an interview he gave where he claimed to have participated in “20 or 30” desegregation cases but then in official papers to the committee said he personally oversaw a handful of them.
After Franken’s needling, which was built on an op-ed written by an attorney who worked with Sessions as a prosecutor that said the senator had not worked closely on the cases, Sessions acknowledged he was involved in fewer desegregation cases than he originally claimed.
In a second round of questioning, Franken tied Sessions to Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that he would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal votes. Sessions said he had not seen evidence of such widespread voter fraud, but believes some amount of fraud does occur in every election.
Sessions largely rebuffed most of his colleague’s questions, either by flatly denying the allegations or by justifying his positions with greater detail about his reasoning.
For example, when Sen. Patrick Leahy pressed him on why he voted against a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2012, Sessions said he objected to a portion of the law giving tribal courts authority over nontribal people.
Sessions told Leahy he supported a version of the bill Sen. Chuck Grassley put forward that simply reauthorized the legislation without the language he found problematic.
He promised throughout the hearing he would enforce the law faithfully while leading the Justice Department, even laws he disagreed with while a senator.
“I think I can separate my personal votes of maybe years ago from what my responsibility is today and I hope that my colleagues can believe that,” Sessions said.
Though still highly critical of Roe v. Wade, he specifically said he would allow access to abortion under laws already on the books. Sessions further said he would not interfere with the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage and promised “aggressive” enforcement of voter-rights laws.
“In the long run this country will be stronger if we adhere to the law even though somebody might be frustrated in the short term by not achieving their agenda,” Sessions said.
Sessions split with Trump in several instances, most notably saying he does not support banning Muslims from entering the United States, though he said he could see a situation where a person’s practice of their religion could prevent them from immigrating.
He also said he would recuse himself from any investigation into Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton, rebuffing Trump’s call in a presidential debate that he would direct his attorney general to look into prosecuting her.
“I believe that would be the best approach for the country because we can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute,” Sessions said.
Still, while Sessions appeared to do his best to assuage Democrats’ concerns about his conservative record, the tough-on-crime and hardline immigration record that has given liberals pause shone through at times, especially in opening statements when he lamented the recent rise in murder rates as a “wake-up call.”
Protesters interrupted the hearing multiple times, with some standing in the back of the room to call Sessions a “racist,” others chanting “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA,” and still others just shouting out their reasons to oppose Trump’s pick.
Police removed each protester from the hearing room shortly after they began their chants. The hearing paused with each disruption but resumed as soon as the protester left, often without any acknowledgment from anyone on the committee.