Jeff Sessions is nominated for one of the most difficult jobs in any administration. As attorney general, he must be loyal to the president and his agenda while taking an oath to uphold the nation’s laws and fairly administer justice.

Senators were deferential to one of their colleagues during Tuesday’s confirmation hearing, which was less about whether Sessions would be approved and more about getting on the record where he would draw these critical fault lines.

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Pressing the Alabama Republican on the inherent conflicts of the job is particularly important because he will be serving a president who has not demonstrated any deep understanding of the Consitution or how the nation’s legal system works. The results were disappointing.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley teed up the issue in his first question: Would Sessions say no to Trump if he were asked to do something unconstitutional or illegal? Sessions replied that his first choice would be to find a way to carry out the policy “in a lawful way,” but he would be prepared to resign if asked to do something “plainly unlawful.” Later in the day, his response was that taking such an action was “very rare,” and that he was confident that if the president were advised an action was “not acceptable” Trump would reverse his position.

Sessions did promise that he would not have a role in determining whether there would be a prosecution of Hillary Clinton. That’s good, because he couldn’t deny he chanted “Lock her up!” at Trump campaign events. Unfortunately, Sessions failed to outright pledge that he would recuse himself, or call for a special prosecutor, in an investigation of Trump or his campaign, especially on ties to Russia.

Sessions holds deeply controversial views, but his credbility among many senators as a man of principle will win him confirmation. And it is on that principle that the nation must pin its hopes.

— The editorial board