Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions fervently rejected "damnably false" accusations of past racist comments Tuesday as he challenged Democratic concerns about the civil rights commitment he would bring as Donald Trump's attorney general. He vowed at his confirmation hearing to stay independent from the White House and stand up to Trump when necessary.
Sessions laid out a sharply conservative vision for the Justice Department he would oversee, pledging to crack down on illegal immigration, gun violence and the "scourge of radical Islamic terrorism" and to keep open the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
But he also distanced himself from some of Trump's public pronouncements.
He said waterboarding, a now-banned harsh interrogation technique that Trump has at times expressed support for, was "absolutely improper and illegal."
Though he said he would prosecute immigrants who repeatedly enter the country illegally and criticized as constitutionally "questionable" an executive action by President Barack Obama that shielded certain immigrants from deportation, he said he did "not support the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States."
Trump earlier in his campaign called for a temporary total ban on Muslims entering his country but has more recently proposed "extreme vetting."
Sessions asserted that he could confront Trump if needed, saying an attorney general must be prepared to resign if asked to do something "unlawful or unconstitutional."
Nothing new came out of the hearing that seemed likely to threaten Sessions' confirmation by the Republican Senate.
Yet as he outlined his priorities, his past — including a 1986 judicial nomination that failed amid allegations that he'd made racially charged comments — hovered over the proceedings. Protesters calling Sessions a racist repeatedly interrupted and were hustled out by Capitol police.
Sessions vigorously denied that he had ever called the NAACP "un-American." He said he had never harbored racial animus, calling the allegations — which included that he had referred to a black attorney in his office as "boy" — part of a false caricature.
"It wasn't accurate then," Sessions said. "It isn't accurate now."
He said he "understands 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. I have witnessed it."
"I know we need to do better. We can never go back," Sessions said. "I am totally committed to maintaining the freedom and equality that this country has to provide to every citizen."
During his confirmation hearing Tuesday, which lasted most of the day, Sessions cast himself as a strong protector of law and order, promising that as attorney general he would crack down on illegal immigration, gun violence and the "scourge of radical Islamic terrorism."
Sessions, echoing rhetoric used on the campaign trail by President-elect Donald Trump, warned of a country struggling to combat illegal drugs flooding across the border, spikes in violent crime in American cities and low morale among police.
"These trends cannot continue. It is a fundamental civil right to be safe in your home and your community," the Alabama Republican said in laying out conservative priorities for the Justice Department at the opening of his Senate hearing.
The Alabama senator, when asked about U.S. intelligence agencies' conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin was directly linked to the hacking of Democratic accounts during the election, said he "has no reason to doubt that and no evidence of anything otherwise."
Trump himself has been less definitive in response to the intelligence report, though his incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said Sunday that Trump indeed has accepted that Russia was responsible for the hacking.
Politics got its share of attention, too, with Sessions promising to recuse himself from any investigation there might be into Democrat Hillary Clinton, because of comments he'd made during the campaign. Trump said previously that he would name a special prosecutor to look into Clinton's use of a private email server, but has since backed away. The FBI and Justice Department declined to bring charges last year.
In a break with the Obama administration, Sessions expressed support for keeping open the the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for suspected terrorists overseas.
He also did not commit to protections for 800,000 immigrations known as Dreamers should President Barack Obama's immigration order be rescinded.
Sessions did say that he was not in support of a ban on Muslims entering the U.S.
Trump proposed a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants during the Republican primary campaign, drawing sharp criticism from both parties. During the general election, he shifted his rhetoric to focus on temporarily halting immigration from an unspecified list of countries with ties to terrorism. Trump did not disavow the Muslim ban, which is still prominently displayed on his campaign website.
Sessions reiterated Trump's position of stronger vetting of potential terrorists at his confirmation hearing Tuesday, but he denounced a Muslim ban.
"I do not support the idea that Muslims should be denied entry to the United States," he said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., came at Sessions about awards the senator received from groups that have espoused extreme anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views.
Sessions defended his Keeper of the Flame Award from the Center for Security Policy, whose founder Frank Gaffney has warned that the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the federal government in an attempt to overthrow it and install Islamic law in the U.S.
Sessions said he was honored but doesn't agree with everything the groups stand for.
Asked at his confirmation hearing about a 2005 video in which Trump bragged about using his fame to force himself on women, Sessions said he believes grabbing a woman by her genitalia is sexual assault.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont asked Sessions, the president-elect's pick for attorney general, about some conflicting statements Sessions made on the campaign trail after the video was released.
In the video, Trump says, "When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything."
Leahy asked Sessions at Tuesday's hearing: "Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without her consent sexual assault?"
Sessions answered: "Clearly it is."
Sessions, an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage, said he will follow Supreme Court decisions on abortion and gay marriage despite his personal beliefs.
"It is the law of the land, it has been settled for some time," Sessions said about Roe v. Wade. "I will respect it and follow it."
Trump has vowed to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn the landmark abortion case.
Sessions has solid support from the Senate's Republican majority, but faces a challenge persuading skeptical Democrats that he'll be fair and committed to civil rights as the country's top law enforcement official. Sen. Dianne Feinstein hinted at those concerns, saying "there is so much fear in this country" particularly among blacks.
Sessions, whose 1986 judicial nomination was derailed by allegations of racially charged comments, sought to confront that concern by saying he "understands 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. I have witnessed it."
"The office of the attorney general of the United States is not a political position, and anyone who holds it must have total fidelity to the laws and the Constitution of the United States," he said.
In 1986, he was accused of having called a black attorney "boy" and having made derogatory references to the NAACP and ACLU.
Sessions called the accusations "false" and part of an unfair caricature.
He said he hopes that this week's hearing on his attorney general nomination will show "that I conducted myself honorably and properly at the time."
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) came down hard on Sessions, questioning the extent of the Alabama senator's involvement in the desegregation and civil rights cases that he'd claimed to have brought at the U.S. attorney in Mobile.
"It’s fair to expect sitting before us you’re not going to misrepresent your own record,” Franken said he zeroed in on Sessions statement to National Review in 2009 that he “filed 20 or 30 civil-rights cases to desegregate schools and political organizations and county commissions when I was a United States attorney.”
Sessions conceded that statement appeared to be an exaggeration, as Politico reports.
“The records don’t show there were 20 or 30 actually-filed cases,” the attorney general nominee said, suggesting that he may have misremembered because some cases “involved multiple parties and multiple defendants.”
When pressed further, Sessions reportedly did not adjust the number he'd claimed, but said that the number "would be less than that that we've looked at." He said it's difficult to obtain an accurate count just by reviewing court records.
At several points, anti-Sessions protesters disrupted Tuesday's hearing. They were quickly escorted out.
Among the protesters were two men wearing Ku Klux Klan costumes and a woman wearing a pink crown.
As Capitol Police took the men wearing white hoods and sheets out of the Senate hearing room, they yelled, "you can't arrest me, I am white!" and "white people own this government!" They held up hand signs saying, "Go Jeffie Boy!" and "KKK."
Also removed was at least one protester from the liberal group Code Pink, who held a sign that said, "Support civil rights, stop Sessions." Wearing a pink crown modeled on the Statue of Liberty, she shouted, "his voting record is evil."
Trump's transition spokesman condemned the tactics used by Code Pink and other groups protesting Sessions.
Incoming press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that the peaceful protesters were attempting "to disrupt our democratic process."
He said Democratic leaders, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, should be asked to denounce these "left-wing tactics" — just as Trump was asked to denounce what Spicer described as "random individuals" who supported him during the campaign.
It is unclear to whom Spicer referred, but Trump drew criticism over the way he responded to the support of controversial figures, including white supremacists like David Duke.
Sessions smiled amiably as he began his presentation, taking time to introduce his grandchildren, joking about Alabama football and making self-deprecating remarks about his strong Southern accent.
In a more serious vein, he was asked by committee chairman Chuck Grassley if he could stand up to Trump if he disagreed with the president-elect's actions. Yes, he said, adding that he would be prepared to resign if asked to do something that was "plainly unlawful."
Democrats were using part of the two days of hearings to challenge Sessions' commitment to civil rights, a chief priority of the Justice Department during the Obama administration. They were also likely to press him on his hard-line stance on immigration policy.
But Republicans have expressed strong support and are expected to secure more than enough votes needed to confirm him, including from some Democrats in conservative-leaning states.
Sessions is known as one of the most staunchly conservative members of the Senate, and has already drawn opposition from at least two Democratic colleagues, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.
In a dramatic turn, Booker — one of three black senators — said he will testify against Sessions on Wednesday, in what his office called an unprecedented instance in which a senator has testified against a colleague seeking a Cabinet post. In a statement, Booker accused Sessions of having a "concerning" record on civil rights and criminal justice reform and called his decision "a call to conscience."
If confirmed, the four-term senator would succeed Attorney General Loretta Lynch and would be in a position to reshape Justice Department priorities in the areas of civil rights, environmental enforcement and criminal justice.
Sessions was first elected to the Senate in 1996 and before that served as state attorney general and a United States attorney. He's been a reliably conservative voice in Congress, supporting government surveillance programs, objecting to the proposed closure of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility and opposing a 2013 bipartisan immigration bill that included a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
He is trying to turn the page from a confirmation hearing in 1986, when his nomination for a federal judgeship failed amid accusations he had made racially insensitive comments as a prosecutor.
Civil rights advocates have rallied against his nomination, with protesters staging a sit-in last week at a Sessions office in Alabama and circulating letters opposed to his nomination. Advocacy groups have drawn attention to Sessions positions they suggest could weaken legal protections for immigrants, minority voters and gays, lesbians and transgender people.
Sessions' supporters have pointed to bipartisan work in the Senate and to supportive statements from some Democrats and even the son of a civil rights activist whom Sessions unsuccessfully prosecuted for voter fraud in Alabama. One of the two senators introducing him at Tuesday's hearing was a moderate Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, suggesting a concerted effort to try to cement his appeal beyond the more conservative members.