Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions said decades-old racism charges against him are "damnably false" and pledged to recuse himself from investigations involving Hillary Clinton at his confirmation hearing to become the nation's next attorney general on Tuesday.
"I was accused in 1986 of failing to protect the voting rights of African Americans…and of condemning civil rights advocates and organizations and even harboring — amazingly — sympathetic views for the KKK," Sessions said. "These are damnably false charges."
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Sessions is the first of Trump's Cabinet picks to go before the Senate. He faced opposition from Democrats concerned about his civil rights record, hardline immigration stance, and vocal opposition to Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 campaign.
Though Sessions faced pointed questions from his Democratic colleagues, the hearing provided few unexpected fireworks in its opening day as Sessions stressed the role of the attorney general as an impartial enforcer of laws passed by Congress.
Will Bow Out Of Clinton Investigations
Sessions, who was the first Republican senator to endorse Donald Trump, told the Senate Judiciary Committee he would recuse himself from investigations into Clinton and pledged to respect the apolitical role of the Justice Department. The Cabinet nominee said recusing himself would be appropriate given some of the comments he made during the campaign.
“This country doesn’t punish its political enemies,” Sessions said after repeatedly pledging to remove himself from investigations into Clinton’s email use as secretary of state and the Clinton Foundation.
“Lock her up!” became a rallying cry for Trump supporters throughout the contentious 2016 campaign. The president-elect has signaled he would not pursue more investigations into his former opponent, but Republicans in Congress have pledged to continue the inquiries.
An FBI inquiry into Clinton’s email use found no criminal wrongdoing.
Racism Charges ‘Damnably False’
The Democratic case against Sessions has focused in part on the racism charges that cost him a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama after being nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Four former Justice Department colleagues testified that Sessions made racially offensive statements.
In the previous hearing, also in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions was accused of suggesting a white lawyer who represented African-American clients was a disgrace to his race, calling civil rights groups “un-American, and being sympathetic to the KKK.
He called the opposition to him in 1986 an organized effort to “caricature” him into something that he’s not.
"I abhor the Klan and what it represents, and its hateful ideology," Sessions said Tuesday.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker will make history this week by becoming the first sitting senator to testify against a fellow senator nominated for a Cabinet position. "We've seen Jeff Sessions — that's Senator Jeff Sessions — consistently voting against or speaking out against key ideals of the Voting Rights Act, taking measures to try to block criminal justice reform," Booker said on MSNBC on Monday. Rep. John Lewis and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus will also testify against Sessions.
"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," Sessions said in opening remarks that were interrupted by protesters, some dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein used her opening remarks to list off a number votes Session made against further protections of voting rights, women's rights, and the LBTG community.
"This hearing must determine clearly whether this senator will enforce laws he votes against," she said.
Sessions said he is “totally committed” to maintaining to the progress the country has made on minority rights.
“We can never go back,” he said.
Opposition to a Ban on Muslims
Sessions has been a hardliner on immigration and helped Trump craft his immigration plan centered on building a wall on the country’s southern border with Mexico and a proposed ban on Muslims.
Sessions said the president-elect has amended his original campaign declaration that the U.S. should not admit Muslims amid the continued threat of ISIS.
“I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious groups should be denied admission to the United States,” Sessions said.
The Alabama senator defended his 2015 vote to against legislation aimed at preventing a religious litmus test for people entering the United States, saying he did not want to advance legislation that would not allow religion from being a consideration.
When pressed on how he would handle Trump’s pledges to deport undocumented immigrants, Sessions said it is his duty to enforce the laws passed by Congress.
“We’re not able financially or any other way to seek out and remove every body that is in the country illegally,” Sessions said. Criminals in the country illegally would be the top target for deportation, he added.
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal grilled Sessions on an award he received from David Horowitz, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center has dubbed “a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black movements.”
Sessions is not familiar with the award, which Blumenthal said was left off his disclosure forms, or Horowitz’s inflammatory remarks. He called Horowitz a “brilliant” writer.
While defending Trump on the campaign trail, Sessions struggled to talk about the infamous 2005 tape in which Trump is heard brazenly talking about grabbing women’s genitals.
“I don't characterize that as sexual assault. I think that's a stretch,” Sessions told The Weekly Standard in October.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy pressed Sessions on the issue at the hearing:
Abortion, Gay Marriage Settled ‘Law of the land’
Sessions, an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage, said he will follow Supreme Court decisions on abortion and gay marriage despite his personal beliefs.
"It is the law of the land, it has been settled for some time," Sessions said about Roe v. Wade. "I will respect it and follow it."
Trump has vowed to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn the landmark abortion case.
A Familiar Face
Sessions was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1997 after serving as the attorney general of Alabama. He is one of the upper chamber’s most conservative members.
“I come before you today as a colleague who has worked with you for years, and with some of you for 20 years,” Sessions said in his opening statement. “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.”
The Opening of a Whirlwind Week
Though it's unlikely the Democratic minority will be able to prevent any of Trump's picks from being confirmed, they will use the whirlwind week of nationally broadcasted hearings as a chance to grill the group of nominees whose qualifications have already come under fire.
A number of Trump's nominees have yet to complete an ethics review requested before their hearings this week. The director of the Office of Government Ethics said in a letter to Senate Democrats last week that the packed schedule "has created undue pressure" on his staff and the missing reviews are "of great concern."
Republicans have pushed back against calls for delaying the hearings by stating arguing other nominees have sat for hearings without completing the information.