US Senator Jeff Sessions on Tuesday fervently rejected “damnably false” accusations of past racist comments as he challenged US Democratic concerns about the civil rights commitment he would bring as US president-elect Donald Trump’s attorney general.
He vowed at his confirmation hearing to stay independent from the White House and stand up to Trump when necessary.
Sessions laid out a sharply conservative vision for the US Department of Justice he would oversee, pledging to crack down on illegal immigration, gun violence, the “scourge of radical Islamic terrorism” and expressing support for the continued use of the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
However, he also distanced himself from some of Trump’s public pronouncements.
He said waterboarding, a now-banned harsh interrogation technique that Trump has at times expressed support for, was “absolutely improper and illegal.”
Although Sessions said he would prosecute immigrants who repeatedly enter the country illegally and criticized as constitutionally “questionable” an executive action by US President Barack Obama that shielded certain immigrants from deportation, he said he did “not support the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States.”
Trump earlier in his campaign called for a temporary total ban on Muslims entering the country, but has more recently proposed “extreme vetting.”
Sessions asserted that he could confront Trump if needed, saying an attorney general must be prepared to resign if asked to do something “unlawful or unconstitutional.”
Nothing new came out of the hearing that seemed likely to threaten Sessions’ confirmation by the Republican-controlled US Senate.
Yet, as he outlined his priorities, his past hovered over the proceedings. Protesters calling Sessions a racist repeatedly interrupted and were hustled out by Capitol police.
Sessions vigorously denied that he had ever called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People “un-American.”
He said he had never harbored racial animus, calling the allegations — which included that he had referred to a black attorney in his office as “boy” — part of a false caricature.
“It wasn’t accurate then,” Sessions said. “It isn’t accurate now.”
He said he “understands 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.”
“I know we need to do better. We can never go back,” Sessions said. “I am totally committed to maintaining the freedom and equality that this country has to provide to every citizen.”
Politics got its share of attention, too, with Sessions promising to recuse himself from any investigation there might be into former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he had criticized during the presidential campaign.
Trump said during the campaign that he would name a special prosecutor to look into Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server, but he has since backed away.
The department and the FBI declined to file charges last year.
Sessions, known as one of the most staunchly conservative senators, has solid support from the Senate’s Republican majority and some Democrats in conservative-leaning states.
However, he faces a challenge persuading skeptical Democrats that he would be fair and committed to civil rights as the country’s top law enforcement official.