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U.S. Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions, in the first day of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, fought back against allegations that he's racist and said he'd uphold LGBT and abortion rights, despite the antigay and antichoice stances he's taken.
He also addressed other controversies during the Tuesday hearing, saying he would not favor a blanket ban on Muslims entering the U.S., would uphold a law against waterboarding, and said he considered grabbing women by the genitalia -- which President-elect Trump once bragged about doing -- to be sexual assault.
"There is a deep fear about what a Trump administration will bring in many places. And this is the context that we must consider Sen. Sessions," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee.
Sessions, one of the most right-wing members of the Senate, attempted to reassure those who are fearful. He said he did not hold racist attitudes, as some had testified when he was considered for a federal judgeship in 1986 -- and rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee, controlled then as now by Republicans.
The statements made about Sessions, who was then a U.S. attorney, included that he had used the n word, called an African-American federal prosecutor "boy," and said he didn't have a problem with the Ku Klux Klan until he found out some members were marijuana smokers. Sessions has characterized the latter statement as a joke -- it came when he was prosecuting a Klan member for the murder of a black man -- and said the others are not true.
In Tuesday's hearing, he did not wait to be questioned about the racism allegations but addressed them by diverging from his prepared opening remarks. "I am the same person, perhaps wiser and maybe better, I hope so, today than I was then, but I did not harbor the kind of animosities and race-based discrimination ideas that were, that I was accused of," he said. He added, "I abhor the Klan and its hateful ideology."
On LGBT rights, he promised to uphold the Supreme Court's marriage equality ruling and the LGBT-inclusive federal hate-crimes statute as settled law, even though he opposed both. He also pledged to uphold a woman's right to abortion, as recognized in the high court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, although he is opposed to abortion.
He was questioned on waterboarding, an interrogation technique that many consider to be a form of torture and has now been outlawed by Congress, but which Trump endorsed using on suspected terrorists. Sessions responded that he would follow the law, saying, "Congress has taken an action now that makes it absolutely improper and illegal to use waterboarding or any other form of torture in the United States by our military and by all our other departments and agencies."
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat, queried him about Trump's proposal to bar all Muslims from entering the U.S., something the president-elect has now backed down on. "I believe the president-elect has subsequent to that statement made clear that he believes the focus should be on individuals coming from countries that have histories of terrorism, and he's also stated that his policy and what he'd suggest is strong vetting," Sessions said. He said he opposed a Senate resolution that condemned the use of religion as a basis for denying entry because it did not allow for consideration of religion at all.
Sessions, who was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump's presidential bid, was asked again about the 2005 tape in which Trump bragged about being able to grab women by the genitals and get away with it because he's a star. When the tape first surfaced during the campaign, Sessions said he did not consider such an action to be sexual assault, but in Tuesday's hearing he said it clearly is.
The nominee also got some questioning from friendly senators, such as Republicans Mike Crapo of Idaho and Ted Cruz of Texas, about whether he'd curb what they say as overreach by the Department of Justice -- which the attorney general heads -- into matters that should be left to the states. Sessions assured them he would, and Cruz particularly accused the department of "politicizing" its work during the Obama administration. Cruz did not touch on its LGBT rights efforts -- such as not defending the Defense of Marriage Act or ruling that sex discrimination includes discrimination based on gender identity -- but it would be no surprise if the Texas senator had those in mind.
Sessions further said he would recuse himself of any potential prosecution of Hillary Clinton, Trump's Democratic rival for the presidency, over her use of a private email server while she was secretary of State or the activities of the Clinton Foundation. He also said he never chanted "Lock her up!" at Trump rallies. "No, I did not, I don't think," he said. "I heard it ... sometimes humorously done." There have been no actual threats of prosecution of Clinton, and the FBI saw no reason to recommend prosecution regarding her emails.
While Sessions's testimony was obviously aimed at allaying civil rights activists' concerns about him, some were not impressed. "Given Jeff Sessions's long record of extremism, in addition to the fact that he was rejected by this committee for another position 30 years ago, the burden was on Senator Sessions today to show that he's fit to serve as attorney general. He failed miserably," said People for the American Way executive vice president Marge Baker in a prepared statement.
"Today, after three months, he finally decided that grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent is sexual assault, but he gave no indication of why he so rushed to defend a candidate who described precisely that behavior," Baker continued. He ignored American values when he brushed aside the possibility of deporting DREAMers and separating families. In attempting to puff up his record on civil rights, he continued to misrepresent his work on cases in which he had no substantive involvement. He dismissed concerns about his failure to disclose thousands of dollars in oil royalties. He treated as inconsequential his long association with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hate groups. And while he was right to say he would recuse himself from any Clinton investigation, he failed to address how he would handle recusal in connection with other crucial issues -- including the investigation of Russian influence in our elections and Donald Trump's unprecedented conflicts of interest -- in which his vociferous support for and connections to President Trump raise grave concerns."
The hearing will resume Wednesday, with civil rights groups and, in an unprecedented move, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey testifying against Sessions. Booker is the first sitting senator to testify against a colleague's nomination for a Cabinet post. It will be streamed live on C-SPAN.