Protesters heckle Ses­sions at hear­ing

At­tor­ney gen­eral nom­i­nee prom­ises to pro­tect rights of all

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Kevin John­son

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.

JACK GRUBER, USA TO­DAY

Protesters stand as Sen. Jeff Ses­sions, nom­i­nee for at­tor­ney gen­eral, ar­rives for his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing.

Ses­sions says he un­der­stands the his­tory of civil rights.

USA TO­DAY

Sen. Jeff Ses­sions told the com­mit­tee, “We are not in a po­si­tion, fi­nan­cially or oth­er­wise, to seek out and re­move ( all un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants).”

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