WASHINGTON – Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), President-elect Trump’s choice to serve as attorney general, seemed to break with the next chief executive on a number of key issues during his confirmation hearing today, including Trump’s controversial proposal to indefinitely block those of the Muslim faith from entering the country.
Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is expected to send his nomination to the floor for confirmation, Sessions, 70, said he holds “no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States.”
During his successful presidential campaign, Trump floated the idea of halting Muslims from entering the country in an effort to combat terrorism. Sessions said he now believes the president-elect has moderated that view, instead favoring a form of stringent vetting to keep those coming from a country with a history of terrorism from crossing the nation’s borders.
Sessions further told the panel that he objected to any proposed Muslim ban because, according to his reading, the proposal would prohibit any consideration of personal religious beliefs in the vetting process.
“Many people do have religious views that are inimical to the public safety of the United States,” Sessions said.
On another issue where he may part with the president-elect’s orthodoxy, Sessions told lawmakers that waterboarding – a procedure used by terrorist interrogators in the past to obtain information – is “absolutely improper and illegal” under current law.
On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to bring back waterboarding and additional techniques that he said would be “much stronger,” telling an audience in South Carolina last February, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work – torture works.”
Sessions himself endorsed the legal analysis prepared during the administration of former President George W. Bush that authorized waterboarding, insisting that the procedure worked. But he hinted there is no getting around the prohibition as enacted.
The nominee further said he would follow the law as construed by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding abortion and same-sex marriage, even though he stridently disagrees with the high court’s decisions.
“It is the law of the land, it has been settled for some time,” Sessions said regarding abortion, adding that he will “respect it and follow it.” Trump, who at one time favored abortion rights, is now opposed to the procedure and at one point went so far as to say women terminating pregnancies should be held legally liable, a position he subsequently retracted.
Sessions addressed another issue that could make his potential future boss uneasy – sexual assault. Under questioning from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking member and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions was asked if “grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent, is that sexual assault?”
“Clearly, it would be,” Sessions said.
Trump was rather infamously caught in a 2005 recording bragging that one method he used to attract women was to grab them in the genitals, using a vulgar euphemism.
Throughout his testimony, Sessions made it clear he would stand tall when he and the president-elect disagreed. Asked by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee chairman, if he would be willing to confront the president on a pressing issue that resulted in disagreement, Sessions said, “I understand the responsibility of the attorney general. You simply have to help the president do things that he might desire in a lawful way and have to be able to say ‘no.'”
On another issue, Sessions said he would recuse himself from any Justice Department investigation into Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of State and the Democratic presidential nominee who lost to Trump in the November election. The president-elect at one time indicated he would seek to indict his former rival for her handling of a private email account during her tenure at Foggy Bottom and also some fundraising activities for her family’s charitable foundation.
Crowds attending Trump appearances during the recently concluded campaign would respond to the now president-elect with chants of “Lock her up!” Sessions, an early Trump supporter, said he didn’t participate in the recitation but he acknowledged that his criticism of the Democratic nominee “could place my objectivity in question.”
“We can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute,” he said.
Sessions, a onetime federal prosecutor, is the first of Trump’s cabinet nominees to endure the confirmation process and he is considered among the most controversial. He was nominated for a federal judgeship in 1986 by former President Reagan but he was rejected by the Senate for allegedly making racially insensitive remarks. One lawyer, for instance, accused him of referring to the NAACP as “un-American.”
Critics maintain his voting record in the Senate, where he has served for 20 years, supports those claims of insensitivity and his confirmation hearing attracted plenty of protesters, including two men dressed up in the garb of the Ku Klux Klan who stood up on chairs and heckled the nominee before the confirmation hearing got underway. They were quickly removed by security personnel.
Sessions used his testimony to reject the claims, expressing hope that “my tenure in this body has shown you that the caricature that was created of me was not accurate.”
“I abhor the Klan and its hateful ideology,” Sessions said. “I never declared the NAACP was un-American.”
In his opening remarks, Session went so far as to vow to make voting rights “a special priority.”
“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. “I have witnessed it. We must continue to move forward and never back.”
Sessions went even further, asserting that he understands “the demands for justice and fairness made by our LGBT community. I will ensure that the statutes protecting their civil rights and their safety are full enforced. I understand the lifelong scars borne by women who are victims of assault and abuse.”
“And if I am so fortunate to be confirmed as your attorney general, you can know that I understand the absolute necessity that all my actions must fall within the bounds of the Constitution and the laws of the United States,” he said.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of the lawmakers who introduced Sessions to the committee, maintained, “I have never witnessed anything to suggest that Sen. Sessions is anything but a dedicated public servant and decent man.”
Regardless, the questioning was not always particularly polite. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) proved to be a particularly tough interrogator. Franken raised questions about claims Sessions made about his time as a federal prosecutor in Alabama; Sessions said he filed 20 or 30 cases regarding desegregation and that he was personally involved in three of four civil rights cases.
Sessions acknowledged that the “20 to 30” figure was inaccurate but he defended his involvement in the civil rights cases despite claims from some lawyers to the contrary.
“I’ll close Mr. Chairman, setting aside any political or ideological differences that you or I may have, DOJ is facing significant challenges … and our country needs an attorney general who doesn’t misrepresent or inflate their involvement on any single issue, so I consider this serious stuff,” Franken said.
“You are correct, Mr. Franken, we need to be correct in what we say,” Sessions responded.
The Sessions confirmation hearing continues on Wednesday. Among those slated to testify is Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.), who is taking the unusual step of opposing the confirmation of another sitting senator.