Protesters heckle Sessions at hearing
Attorney general nominee promises to protect rights of all
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, President- elect Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee, rejected on Tuesday the “false caricature” of his views on racial tolerance.
Facing a barrage of challenges to his record on civil rights enforcement, he asserted that the Justice Department under his direction would “never falter in its obligation to protect the rights of every American, particularly those who are most vulnerable.”
The first of the Trump administration’s most controversial nominees to appear for Senate confirmation, the 70- year- old former federal prosecutor and state attorney general arrived to a mar- ble- encrusted hearing room packed with protesters. He attempted to allay myriad grievances over racially charged statements and his long antiimmigration record.
Before he could take his seat at the witness table, protesters wearing Ku Klux Klan costumes erupted with shouts of “white power” before they were ushered out, the first clash of several pitting demonstrators against Capitol police. At least eight others were dragged out during the course of the session, some yelling, “No Trump, no KKK, no racist USA.”
Sessions sat silently while protesters were moved before he pressed ahead.
He affirmed to the Senate Judiciary Committee that “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. ... While humans must recognize the the limits of their abilities — and I do — I am ready for this job. We will do it right.”
Addressing claims that he sympathized with hate groups, including the KKK, and sought to intimidate black voters in a controversial voting fraud prosecution in 1985, Sessions called the assertions “false.”
He denied referring to civil rights organizations as “unAmerican,” an allegation made during his failed bid for a federal judgeship in 1986.
That hearing, Sessions said, propelled an inaccurate “caricature” of his views on race and equality. “I do hope that I’m perhaps wiser and maybe a little better today,” he said. “I did not harbor the kind of racial insensitivity that I was accused of. I did not.”
Responding to questions from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D- Vt., he rejected any attempt, as once proposed by Trump, to deny prospective Muslim immigrants entry to the USA on the basis of their religion.
“I do not believe that Muslims as a religious group should be denied entry to the U. S.,” Sessions said.
As he offered the remarks, Khizr Khan, a vocal critic of Trump and the father of a Muslim soldier killed while serving in Iraq, sat a few rows behind the nominee. Khan has urged the Senate to reject Sessions’ nomination.
On the broader issue of immigration, on which he stands as Congress’ chief opponent to Obama administration efforts at an overhaul, the senator conceded that the federal government lacked the resources to engage in a mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, as Trump has suggested.
“We are not in a position, financially or otherwise, to seek out and remove ( all undocumented immigrants),” Sessions said. “Let’s fix the system.”
He affirmed an unstinting stance on border security.
“We will prosecute those who repeatedly violate our borders,” the nominee told the panel. “It will be my priority to confront these crises vigorously, effectively and immediately.”
In one of the first questions Sessions fielded, he said he would recuse himself from any investigations related to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Sessions said his objectivity could be called into question because of his statements about Clinton during the presidential campaign last year.
Sessions pledged that he would “systematically” prosecute gun crimes.
Some of the most vocal responses from protesters came after Sessions affirmed his support for maintaining the military detention facility holding suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, which the Obama administration has long sought to shut down.
Guantanamo, Sessions told Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S. C., “fits that purpose marvelously well.”
“No!” shouted protesters who jumped to their feet in the rear gallery. At least two of the protesters struggled with police officers as they were removed.
Though the closure of the controversial facility proved to be a non- starter for Sessions, he acknowledged that the interrogation tactic known as waterboarding was illegal. The senator had expressed support for harsh tactics in questioning terror suspects.
Throughout Tuesday’s session, Sessions appeared largely unflustered during a hearing that featured only rare flashes of emotion from the nominee and committee members.
Sessions sought to distance himself from some of the strident rhetoric espoused during the primary and general election campaigns and immediately after Trump’s election.
On Russia’s alleged use of cyberespionage, Sessions, unlike the president- elect, said there was “no reason to doubt” the assessment of U. S. intelligence agencies that Russia sought to influence the presidential election in favor of Trump.
Leahy referred to Trump’s comments about groping women and asked whether the unwanted grabbing of genitals amounted to sexual assault. Sessions responded with little equivocation: “Clearly, it would be.”
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s ranking Democrat, urged a close examination of her longtime colleague’s record and his close association with Trump — he was the first U. S. senator to throw his support behind the candidate.
“The senator before us this morning is someone many of us on this committee have worked with for 20 years,” Feinstein said. “That makes this very difficult for me. ... We cannot ignore that there are deep concerns and anxiety throughout America. There is a deep fear about what the Trump administration will bring in many places. And it is in this context in which we must consider Sen. Sessions’ record and nomination to become the chief law enforcement officer of America.”
A coalition of civil rights advocates have stepped up their opposition in recent days, renewing a call for a hearing delay while characterizing the nominee as “unfit.” Many of them were in the standing- room- only hearing room gallery.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which described Sessions’ nomination as “particularly fraught,” was represented throughout the hearing room. Sherrilyn Ifill, the group’s president, has cited Sessions’ failed prosecution of a voter fraud case in Alabama in 1985 involving three black activists that has become a cause célèbre for the senator’s opponents. The three were quickly acquitted, though the case has followed the senator with questions about whether he, as a federal prosecutor, sought to intimidate black voters.
Albert Turner Jr., the son of two of the activists charged in the case, issued a surprise endorsement of Sessions’ last week, dismissing claims that the prosecutor’s actions were motivated by race.
“My differences in policy and ideology with him do not translate to personal malice,” Turner said. “He is not a racist. ... He was presented with evidence by a local district attorney that he relied on, and his office presented the case. That’s what a prosecutor does. I believe him when he says that he was simply doing his job.”
Turner’s mother, Evelyn, said the matter remained a painful chapter in the family’s life and would not support Sessions’ nomination.
Sessions said the case was brought with no racial animus, adding that the prosecution had contributed to the “inaccurate” portrayal of him as racially insensitive. “The caricature created of me was not accurate then; it is not accurate now,” he told Sen. Graham.
Sessions’ team has assembled a stable of high- profile supporters. Among them: former attorney general Michael Mukasey, former deputy attorney general Larry Thompson and former FBI director Louis Freeh.
Mukasey and Thompson, who sat behind the nominee throughout Tuesday’s session, are set to testify on Sessions’ behalf before the committee Wednesday.
“I do not believe that Muslims as a religious group should be denied entry to the U. S.” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R- Ala.
Protesters stand as Sen. Jeff Sessions, nominee for attorney general, arrives for his confirmation hearing.
Sessions says he understands the history of civil rights.
Sen. Jeff Sessions told the committee, “We are not in a position, financially or otherwise, to seek out and remove ( all undocumented immigrants).”