Sessions faces tough questions, protests

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jeff Sessions, facing a barrage of challenges to his record on civil rights enforcement and questions about racial tolerance as President-elect Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee, Tuesday rejected the "false caricature'' that has long shadowed his public life and asserted that the Justice Department under his direction would "never falter in its obligation to protect the rights of every American, particularly those who are most vulnerable.’’

The first of the Trump administration’s most controversial nominees to appear for Senate confirmation, the 70-year-old Alabama senator walked into a marble encrusted hearing room packed with protesters in an attempt to allay myriad grievances left in the wake of the nominee’s past racially charged statements and long anti-immigration record.

Yet even before he could take his seat at the witness table, protesters wearing Ku Klux Klan costumes erupted with shouts of "white power,'' before they were ushered out, the first clash of several pitting demonstrators against Capitol police. At least five others had to be dragged out of the room, some yelling "No Trump, no KKK, no racist USA."

“I deeply understand the history of civil rights and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters,’’ Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Sessions has long served as a member. “I have witnessed it... .While humans must recognize the the limits of their abilities — and I do — I am ready for this job. We will do it right.''

Directly confronting claims that he sympathized with hate groups, including the KKK and sought to intimidate black voters in a controversial 1985 voting fraud prosecution, Sessions called the assertions "false.'' And he denied ever referring to civil rights organizations as "un-American,'' an allegation made during his failed 1986 bid for a federal judgeship.

That 1986 hearing, Sessions said, created a false "caricature'' of his views on race and equality. "I do hope that I'm perhaps wiser and maybe a little better today,'' he said. "I did not harbor the kind of racial insensitivity that I was accused of. I did not.''

Responding to questions from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., he also rejected any attempt, as once proposed by President-elect Donald Trump,  to deny prospective Muslim immigrants to the U.S., on the basis of their religion.

"I do not believe that Muslims as a religious group should be denied entry to the U.S.,'' Sessions said.

In one of the first questions Sessions' fielded, he said he would recuse himself from any investigations related to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Sessions said his objectivity could be called into question because of his past statements about Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Sessions also pledged that he would "systematically'' prosecute gun crimes and reaffirmed his unstinting stance on border security.

"We will prosecute those who repeatedly violate our borders,'' the nominee told the panel. "It will be my priority to confront these crises vigorously, effectively and immediately.''

Among the most vocal responses from protesters came after Sessions affirmed his support for maintaining the military prison at Guantanamo Bay for suspected terrorists, a facility that the Obama administrations has long sought to shutdown.

Guantanamo, Sessions told Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., "fits that purpose marvelously well.''

"No!'' shouted a protesters who jumped to their feet in the rear gallery. At least two of the protesters struggled officers, as they were removed.

Though Sessions has spent two decades in the Senate and has participated in dozens of confirmation hearings as a committee member, supporters have emphasized the need for serious preparation if only to avoid a painful repeat of an appearance before the panel 30 years ago when he his nomination for a federal judgeship was was rejected, in part, for his racially charged comments.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., an icon of the civil rights movement, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., have been added to the list of witnesses expected to oppose Sessions' nomination.

Invoking the name of the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, who during the 1986 judicial confirmation referred to Sessions as a "disgrace,'' Leahy promised a close examination of a Senate colleague who worked against him on hate crime legislation and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

"Sen. Sessions has repeatedly stood in the way of efforts to promote and protect Americans' civil rights,'' Leahy said. "He did so even as other members of the Republican Party sought to work across the aisle to advance the cause of living up to our nation's core values of equality and justice.''

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the panel's ranking Democrat, had called for a delay in the hearing, citing an accelerated schedule that has provided little time to review the nominee's record, including writings and speeches. The senior senator also has claimed that answers Sessions provided to the committee in a written questionnaire were incomplete.



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