President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee as attorney general promised on his first day of confirmation hearings that if he takes office, he will be fair-minded and compassionate to all Americans.
“As a Southerner, who actually saw discrimination and have no doubt it existed in a systematic and powerful and negative way unto the people … I know that was wrong,” said Sessions, a Republican from Alabama. “I know we need to do better. We can never go back.”
Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary hearing represented a vindication of sort for Sessions, 70, after the committee rejected him for a federal judgeship 30 years ago over concerns that he held racist beliefs.
Now nominated to be the top law enforcement official in the country, Sessions again had to answer for a career questioned by more than 400 civil rights groups. But unlike in 1986, Sessions is expected to be easily confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate.
While Sessions looked to escape the charges levied at his 1986 hearing — saying “there was an organized effort to caricature me as something that wasn’t true” — Democrats aggressively challenged him on many issues, chief among them civil rights.
“I care about civil rights. I care about voting rights. I have heard your issues,” Sessions told members of the committee. “I get it.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is the sole carryover on Judiciary from 1986. Having voted against Sessions three decades ago, Leahy didn’t offer any evidence that his position this time would be any different.
Although Leahy relinquished his role as the top Democrat on Judiciary this session to be the ranking member on Appropriations, his questions were still some of the most forceful of the day.
In two rounds of sharp questioning, Leahy’s voiced boomed throughout the Kennedy Caucus Room. When he considered Sessions’ answers unsatisfactory, Leahy bluntly interrupted and repeated his question.
Sessions, in turn, showed unyielding deference to Leahy, referring repeatedly to the Vermont senator by his former title.
“Did I call you Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman? I think I did,” Sessions said, smiling. “You’ve been my chairman many years.”Leahy peppered Sessions on myriad topics and repeatedly pushed him to pledge that, if confirmed, he would uphold and enforce key laws he had not supported as an Alabama senator.
Leahy often got what he wanted out of his longtime colleague.
On surveillance, Leahy asked if Sessions would enforce the USA Freedom Act, a Leahy law banning the bulk collection of phone data by surveillance agencies. Sessions had opposed the legislation.
“I will follow the law, yes, sir,” Sessions responded.
Leahy questioned him over whether he would, as attorney general, have a litmus test on hiring department officials with a history at civil rights organizations.
Sessions — who has railed against past judicial nominees for having “ACLU DNA” — flatly responded, “No.”
Sessions dodged Leahy’s questions regarding whether he agreed with the current Department of Justice policy of not enforcing certain federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized its use.
“I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law,” Sessions said.
Leahy went on to interrogate him as to why he hadn’t supported two laws the Vermont senator introduced aimed at expanding protections for marginalized groups: the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization of 2013 and the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Addressing the VAWA reauthorization, Sessions said he had voted for earlier iterations of the bill. Sessions explained that he voted against Leahy’s 2013 reauthorization in part because it would have allowed outsiders suspected of committing crimes on Native American reservations to be tried in tribal courts.
“None of the non-Indians prosecuted have appealed to federal courts,” Leahy shot back. “Many feel it has made victims on tribal land safer.”
Regarding his opposition to the Shepard bill — which expanded federal investigatory powers and protections to the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities — Sessions said he wasn’t sure at the time that such crimes were prevalent enough to warrant “an expansion of federal law into an area that the federal government has not been historically involved.”
Sessions added that he had suggested a study at the time to see how prevalent such hate crimes were.
“As far as a study, last year the FBI said that LGBT individuals were more likely to be targeted for hate crimes than any other minority group in the country,” Leahy responded. “We can study this forever, but that’s a pretty strong fact.”
FBI data from 2014 show that LGBTQ people are the most frequently targeted, twice as likely to be attacked as African-Americans.
Sessions promised to defend both Leahy laws, if confirmed.In concluding his first round of questioning, Leahy invoked his 2015 resolution — supported by many Republicans — stating that “the United States must not bar individuals from entering into the United States based on their religion.”
“Do you agree with the president-elect that the United States can or should deny entry to all members of a particular religion?” Leahy asked Sessions.
“Many people do have religious views that are inimical to the public safety of the United States,” he responded. “I did not want to have a resolution that suggested that that could not be a factor in the vetting process before someone is admitted. But I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States.”
Both Democrats and Republicans questioned Sessions’ independence from Trump and his campaign promises.
In his opening remarks, Sessions promised that his role would not be a “mere rubber stamp” to Trump’s policies.
He also promised to refuse any sort of illegal directive Trump might order, saying one would “have to resign, ultimately, before agreeing to execute a policy that the attorney general believes would be unlawful or unconstitutional.”
Sessions in February became the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump’s candidacy, and he became a top contender for his running-mate.
Sessions acknowledged that his own critical statements on Hillary Clinton throughout the campaign “could place (his) objectivity in question,” and he promised to recuse himself from any potential Justice Department investigation of Clinton.
“We can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute,” he said.
But when Democrats pressed Sessions on whether he would be willing to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Trump or his associates — on everything from alleged conflicts of interest to potential connections to Russian meddling in the presidential election — Sessions was noncommittal.In his second round of questioning, Leahy criticized Sessions for his initial statements defending Trump after an archived “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump boasting of past instances of groping women surfaced in The Washington Post.
“Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent, is that sexual assault?” Leahy asked curtly.
“Clearly it would be,” Sessions said.
“Thank you,” Leahy responded. “If a sitting president — or any other high federal official — was accused of committing what the president-elect described, in a context in which it could be federally prosecuted, would you be able to prosecute and investigate?”
Sessions promised that, if necessary, he would go forward with such an investigation.
While Sessions pledged independence from Trump, his vision for the office of attorney general fell in line with the president-elect’s campaign theme of restoring law and order to America.
Sessions described a “dangerous trend” of increasing crime, and he promised to go after gun traffickers, drug dealers and terrorists. He also said that law enforcement as a whole has been “unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable action of a few.”
“They believe the political leadership in the country has abandoned them. They felt they have become targets, morale has suffered, and last year, while under intense public criticism, the number of police officers killed in the line of duty increased by 10 percent,” Sessions said.
Police deaths did spike over the last year, although the 2016 casualties remain lower than the average for the last 10 years. Similarly, while crime has spiked in some large cities in the past year, FBI statistics report a 22.3 percent decrease in crime nationally between 2006 and 2015.
A few dozen protesters attended Tuesday’s hearing wearing red clothing and stickers reading “STOP Sessions.” U.S. Capitol Police removed about 10 who interrupted Sessions’ hearing periodically, including two men in Ku Klux Klan regalia who cheered and held signs saying, “Go Jeffie Boy!” and “KKK.”
“You can’t arrest me! I’m white!” one of the protesters shouted while they were carried out of the room.
Sen. Sessions greeted by protesters at first day of confirmation hearings. pic.twitter.com/OOwVoU36TH
— Lydia Wheeler (@WheelerLydia) January 10, 2017
The committee is to finish the hearings Wednesday. Instead of Sessions testifying, guests have been invited by both parties to speak about the prospect of him as attorney general.
Witnesses include leaders of various civil rights groups as well as Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who in an unprecedented move will become the first senator to testify against a colleague.