Sen. Jeff Sessions vowed to recuse himself from any possible Justice Department investigations into Hillary Clinton if he’s confirmed as President-elect Donald Trump’s attorney general and vowed to follow laws he did not support as senator in his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday.
“It was a highly contentious campaign,” Sessions said. “Some of the comments I made [about Clinton] … could place my objectivity in question. I believe the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse myself from any questions involving Secretary Clinton.”
Sessions added, “We can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute.”
Trump told Clinton during the second presidential debate last fall that if he won, he would “instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.”
Senators sought assurances from Sessions that he would maintain his independence from Trump and not allow the Justice Department to become a prosecutorial arm of the White House.
In his opening statement, Sessions said the attorney general “must be willing to tell the president or other top officials ‘no'” when they overreach and added that he believes the attorney general must resign if asked to do anything illegal. Most of the rules preventing the Justice Department’s politicization are not laws, but policies that can be changed by an incoming administration, according to Politico’s Isaac Arnsdorf.
Sessions was asked several times by Democratic senators if he would investigate potential wrongdoing by the president. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) asked Sessions repeatedly if he believed that “grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent” is sexual assault, referencing comments Trump made on tape 10 years ago that were released during the campaign. Sessions replied “clearly.” Leahy then asked if a president could be prosecuted for that crime; Sessions replied “if appropriate, yes.” Other senators asked if Sessions would recuse himself in any investigations of Trump’s campaign. Sessions, who was a top adviser during the campaign, suggested he would not.
Under questioning from Democratic senators, Sessions said he would uphold laws he disagreed with, such as a woman’s right to obtain an abortion. He also said he would prosecute hate crimes against gay people, despite having voted against expanding hate crimes to include LGBT people in the Senate.
Sessions also distanced himself from some of Trump’s positions. He acknowledged that the use of waterboarding was illegal, and distanced himself from Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban,” saying he did not support banning Muslims from entering the country and believed in religious freedom. (He said he did believe the government could ask potential immigrants about their personal religious beliefs.) Sessions also rejected Trump’s campaign idea of creating a “registry” of American Muslims. “I would not favor a registry of Muslims in the United States,” he said.
Sessions signaled he would break with the Obama administration’s hands off approach to states that have legalized marijuana for recreational or medical use. “I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law,” he said, adding that Congress should legalize marijuana if it wants the attorney general not to prosecute its use. “It’s not so much the attorney general’s job to decide what laws to enforce.”
At least 15 protesters have been thrown out for disrupting the proceedings. “Stop these fascist pigs from getting into power!” one yelled. Another called Sessions “pure evil.” Two of them wore Klan robes while accusing Sessions of racism.
In his opening statement, Sessions addressed Democrats’ concerns about his past record on civil rights and race issues when he was a prosecutor in Alabama, calling the accusations against him “damnably false” and stressing his role in the prosecution of two Klan members who murdered a black teenager in the 1980s.
“This caricature of me from 1986 is not correct,” he said under questioning from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “I do not harbor the kind of animosities and race-based discrimination ideas that I was accused of.”
Reporters at the hearing were provided with a thick binder detailing Sessions’ record on voting rights cases.
Sen Al Franken (D-Minn) cross examined Sessions over his assertion in 2009 that he personally worked on 20 or 30 desegregation cases while a federal prosecutor in Alabama. Sessions admitted that it was a smaller number. Franken also poked holes in Sessions claim he personally handled three civil rights cases. Franken pointed out that the lead attorneys on those cases said Sessions simply signed his names on their documents. Sessions said he disagreed that he misrepresented his involvement.
Thirty years ago, the senator’s bid to become a district judge failed in the Senate over accusations that he called a black lawyer “boy” — Sessions denied this — and referred to the American Civil Liberties Union as “un-American.” As a federal prosecutor in the 1980s, Sessions also unsuccessfully brought charges for voting fraud against an activist who was registering black voters. He has criticized the Voting Rights Act, although he voted to reauthorize it in 2006. In his opening statement, Sessions said he looked into the voter fraud case because African-American leaders in the community asked him to.
Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, will speak in opposition to Sessions’ nomination Wednesday, becoming the first sitting senator to testify against a fellow senator in a confirmation hearing. Booker said he decided to take this unprecedented step because of Sessions’ comments criticizing parts of the Voting Rights Act and his recent opposition to criminal justice reform and immigration reform.
There are just 48 Democrats in the Senate, and it’s unlikely the minority party can scoop up the three Republican defections needed to block Sessions’ nomination. (Moreover, some Democrats will likely end up backing Sessions — Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has already thrown his support behind him.) Still, Democrats can use the hearing to air their concerns about the senator, who was a close adviser to Trump throughout the campaign, and make the argument that his views are outside the mainstream.