It got rowdy at times during the hearing Tuesday on Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination to become attorney general, but not so much because of fellow senators who questioned the Alabama Republican.
Protesters interrupted the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing multiple times, some dressed in Ku Klux Klan outfits, others wearing the familiar Code Pink attire. They shouted “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” and other slogans.
The hearing itself wasn’t as contentious as some expected, as even some Democrats noted their friendship with Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to run the Justice Department as attorney general.
Until Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., challenged Sessions on the precise number of civil rights cases he was involved in as a U.S. attorney in Alabama, there was little talk about the allegations of racism that helped sink Sessions’ 1986 nomination as a federal judge.
“These are damnably false charges,” @SenatorSessions says.
Here are eight takeaways from the first day of the Sessions confirmation hearings:
1. Racism Allegations ‘Damnably False’
During his opening remarks, Sessions confronted head-on allegations lodged 30 years ago by other Justice Department lawyers that he was hostile to civil rights.
“I was accused in 1986 of failing to protect the voting rights of African-Americans by presenting the Perry County case, the voter fraud case, and of condemning civil rights organizations and even harboring—amazingly—sympathies for the KKK,” Sessions told his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee. “These are damnably false charges.”
He explained that he brought a 1982 voter fraud case in Perry County, Alabama, against civil rights advocate Albert Turner at the urging of local prosecutors and a grand jury foreman.
“The voter fraud case my office prosecuted was in response to pleas from African-Americans, incumbent elected officials who claim that the absentee ballot process involved a situation in which the ballots cast for them were stolen, altered, and cast for their opponents,” Sessions said. “The prosecution sought to protect the integrity of the ballot, not to block voting. It was a voting rights case.”
Turner and others were acquitted.
Sessions noted his role as both a U.S. attorney and later as Alabama’s attorney general in the prosecution and execution of Klansman Henry Hays.
“As to the KKK, I invited civil rights attorneys from Washington, D.C., to help us solve a very difficult investigation into the unconscionable, horrendous death of a young African-American,” Sessions told the committee, adding:
There was no federal death penalty at the time and I felt the death penalty was appropriate in this case. I pushed to have it tried in state court, which was done. That defendant was indeed convicted and sentenced to death and 10 years later—ironically—as Alabama’s attorney general, my staff participated in a defense of that verdict. That murdering Klansman was indeed executed. I abhor the Klan and what it represents and its hateful ideology.
Sessions said he “never declared the NAACP was un-American nor that a civil rights attorney was a disgrace to his race,” as he had been accused of in 1986.
2. He’ll Recuse Himself on Clinton
Sessions said as attorney general he would recuse himself from any federal investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or the Clinton Foundation, because he publicly criticized the Democratic nominee during the 2016 presidential race.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, asserted her concerns during opening remarks.
“The president-elect said to his opponent during a debate, ‘If I win, I’m going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look at your situation,’” Feinstein said. “Mr. Chairman, that’s not what an attorney general does. An attorney general does not investigate and prosecute at the behest of a president.”
Later, Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, raised the question.
“In light of the comments that you made, some have pressed concern about whether you can approach the Clinton matter impartially in both fact and appearance. How do you plan to address those concerns?” Grassley asked.
Sessions said it was a highly contentious campaign.
“I, like a lot of people, made comments about the issues in that campaign with regard to Secretary Clinton and some of the comments I made I do believe could place my objectivity in question,” Sessions said. “I’ve given that thought. I believe the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse myself from any kind of investigations involving Secretary Clinton and matters raised during the campaign.”
Later in the hearing, in response to a question from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Sessions said he never joined the chants of “lock her up” during the presidential campaign.
3. Russian Espionage
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked whether Sessions would recuse himself and appoint a special prosecutor for an investigation of any Trump campaign officials that might have worked with Russian intelligence. Durbin said it was “a hypothetical.”
His decision to recuse himself from any Clinton probe was “because I’ve made public comments that could be construed as having an impact on the final judgment that would be rendered,” Sessions said, adding:
I don’t think I made any comments on this issue that would go to that. But I would review it and try to do the right thing as to whether or not it should stay within the jurisdiction of the attorney general or not.
Early in the hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked about the alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s email.
“How do you feel about a foreign entity trying to interfere in our election? I’m not saying they changed the outcome, but it is clear they did it. How do you feel about it and what should we do?” Graham asked.
Sessions called it a “a significant event.”
“We have penetration apparently throughout our government by foreign entities. We know the Chinese revealed background information on millions of people in the United States,” Sessions said, adding:
These I suppose ultimately are part of international big power politics. But when a nation uses their improperly gained or intelligence-wise gained information to take policy positions and impact other nation’s democracy or approach to any issue, then that raises real serious matters. Really I suppose it goes in many ways to our State Department and our Defense Department in how we as a nation have to react to that.
4. ‘Access Hollywood’ Video
In a line of questioning that seemed to catch Sessions off guard, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., brought up the 2005 “Access Hollywood” video, in which Trump is heard making lewd comments about groping women.
“If a sitting president or any other high federal official is accused of committing what the president-elect described in a context in which it could be federally prosecuted, would you be able to prosecute it and investigate it?” Leahy asked.
Sessions, who also agreed any such behavior would be sexual assault, said the president could be prosecuted.
“The president is subject to certain lawful restrictions and they would be required to be applied by the appropriate law enforcement official if appropriate, yes,” Sessions said.
5. Saying ‘No’ to President Trump
Sessions talked about how he would move from making law and voting on policy to enforcing laws—even laws he voted against—as a matter of duty. Stressing independence, he also said the attorney general is not a political office.
“He or she must be committed to following the law,” he said. “He or she must be willing to tell the president ‘no’ if he overreaches. He or she cannot be a mere rubber stamp to any idea the president has.”
He or she also must set the example for the employees in the department to do the right thing and ensure that they know the attorney general will back them up, no matter what politician might call, or what powerful special interest, influential contributor, or friend might try to intervene.
6. Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage
Feinstein pressed Sessions on two major social issues, abortion and same-sex marriage. Sessions said he would enforce the law on both.
“You have referred to Roe v. Wade as ‘one of the worst, colossally erroneous Supreme Court decisions of all time.’ Is that still your view?” Feinstein asked.
It is. I believe it violated the Constitution and really attempted to set policy and not follow law. It is the law of the land. It is established and has been so for a long time. It deserves respect, and I will respect it and follow it.
Asked later whether his Justice Department would argue before the Supreme Court in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion across the nation, Sessions said the question was too hypothetical.
Feinstein referred to a November interview that Trump gave on “60 Minutes” in which the president-elect said same-sex marriage was settled law. She asked whether Sessions agreed.
“It was 5-4 and five justices on the Supreme Court, the majority of the court has established the definition of marriage for the entire United States of America, and I will follow that decision,” Sessions said.
7. Illegal Immigration
On one of Trump’s signature issues, curbing illegal immigration, Sessions said the U.S. must enforce its laws. He also said Congress has a role in fixing the nation’s broken immigration system.
“Colleagues, it has not been working right,” Sessions said. “We’ve entered more and more millions of people illegally into the country. Each one of them produces some sort of humanitarian concern. But it is particularly true for children. We’ve been placed in a particularly bad situation.”
When the matter came up later, Sessions talked about the economic impact of illegal immigration.
“Immigration has been a high priority for the United States. We’ve been a leading country in the world in accepting immigration,” Sessions said, adding:
I don’t think the American people want to end immigration. I do think if you bring in a larger flow of labor than we have jobs for, it does impact adversely the wage prospects, the job prospects of American citizens. As a nation, we should evaluate immigration on whether or not it serves and advances the national interest and not the corporate interest. It has to be in the people’s interest first.
8. Operation Choke Point
Sessions briefly addressed Operation Choke Point, a secretive Justice Department program that works with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and other agencies to target legal businesses—such as payday lenders, tobacco sellers, and gun dealers—that the Obama administration opposes.
Choke Point refers to the aim of discouraging banks and other lenders from doing business with these industries, thus choking off financing.
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, later asked Sessions whether it is proper to target legal businesses for political reasons, and whether he would stop it if confirmed.
“At least as you framed this issue, as I understand the issue, from what little I know about it, fundamentally, a lawful business should not be attacked by having other lawful businesses pressured not to do business with the first business. For me that would be hard to justify,” Sessions said.