WASHINGTON — Sen. Jeff Sessions sought to reassure colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee at his hearing to become U.S. Attorney General on Tuesday that he would enforce the law impartially as he defended his civil rights record.
Sessions, a four-term Republican from Alabama, acknowledged he personally opposes some civil rights laws and Supreme Court rulings on abortion but insisted that if confirmed as attorney general he would still fully enforce them.
“You know who I am, you know what I believe in, you know that I’m a man of my word,” Sessions said. “You know that I revere the Constitution, that I’m committed to the rule of law. And you know that I believe in fairness, impartiality and equal justice under law.”
Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, the nominee for Homeland Security secretary, also appeared for his confirmation hearing before another Senate committee Tuesday.
President-elect Donald Trump’s choice of Sessions, one of the most conservative senators, to be the nation’s top law enforcement official drew support from police groups and Republicans.
The nomination also spawned vigorous opposition by civil rights and civil liberties groups, who questioned whether Sessions was fit to hold the post. Protesters interrupted the hearing several times, shouting “no Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA” as they were being ejected.
If confirmed, as expected, by the Republican majority, Sessions will be able to reverse Justice Department priorities he has criticized as political and overreaching.
Democrats on the committee treated Sessions as a colleague — questioning him on contentious issues but never really pressing him or clashing with him.
In his opening statement, Sessions said he would focus on prosecuting gun crimes and those “who repeatedly violate our borders,” working with local police, upholding civil rights and civil liberties, and protecting Americans “from the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism.”
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Judiciary Committee chairman, called Sessions “a man of honor and integrity.”
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said, “I am very troubled about his stand against civil rights.”
Sessions, a Trump backer during the presidential campaign, tried to defuse potentially explosive issues. He said he would step aside from any new investigations of Hillary Clinton for her emails or the Clinton Foundation, and that he would quit if Trump asked him to break the law.
Sessions spent much of his time trying to erase the stigma that has clung to him since 1986 when the Judiciary Committee rejected his nomination as a federal judge because he allegedly called the NAACP “un-American” and said he admired the Ku Klux Klan.
He repeatedly denied that he had made the statements. “I did not harbor the kind of animosity and race-based discrimination that I was accused of,” Sessions said. “It wasn’t accurate then. It is not accurate now.”
Sessions also said he opposes barring Muslims from entry to the United States, as Trump once called for. Trump has modified his position, calling for extreme vetting of those from nations plagued by terrorism.
“I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States,” Sessions testified. He also said he opposed a registry of Muslims.
But Sessions refused to budge in his support for rescinding President Barack Obama’s executive action allowing “dreamers,” or noncitizens brought here as children to stay in this country, and keeping open the Guantánamo Bay prison camp for accused terrorists.
Pressed on what will happen to the 800,000 dreamers, Sessions said, “An attorney general’s role is to enforce the law.” But he added, “We’re not able financially or any other way to seek out and remove everybody that’s in the country illegally.”