Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions stressed his reputation in the Senate when he testified before a key committee Tuesday that could decide whether he becomes Donald Trump’s attorney general.
The four-term Senator told the Senate Judiciary Committee—the same one that once rejected him for a federal judgeship over allegations of racially provocative remarks—that he is a “man of my word” who believes in “equal justice under the law.”
“I come before you today as a colleague who has worked with you for years, and with some of you for 20 years,” he said. “You know who I am. You know what I believe in. You know that I am a man of my word and can be trusted to do what I say I will do. You know that I revere our Constitution and am committed to the rule of law. And you know that I believe in fairness, impartiality, and equal justice under the law.”
Democrats have targeted Sessions as one of the Trump Cabinet nominees they will oppose, in part due to his rejection for a judgeship in 1986 and his views on subjects such as illegal immigration.
The hearing got off to a rocky start when two protesters dressed in mock Ku Klux Klan outfits shouted. A member of the liberal group Code Pink was later kicked out for laughing when Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby was speaking in Session’s favor, while two more protesters were removed just after Sessions began speaking.
Deviating from his prepared remarks, Sessions came out ahead of an expected line of attack and addressed the charges of racism levied against him at his 1986 hearing for a federal judgeship.
“These are damnably false charges,” Sessions said. He defended his prosecution of the Marion Three in what he called a voting rights case, he denied claims that he had called the NAACP and the ACLU “un-American” and he vehemently denounced the Ku Klux Klan.
“I abhor the Klan, and what that it represents, and its hateful ideology,” Sessions said.
Sessions was the first sitting senator to endorse Trump largely due to his views on immigration. He is against a path to citizenship and has opposed almost every immigration reform bill before the Senate that includes one. He’s also in favor of curbing legal immigration.
But his positions on civil rights issues are difficult to paint with a broad brush. He voted in 2006 to renew the Voting Rights Act for 25 years, and then cheered in 2013 when the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the law. In the late 1990s, he co-sponsored legislation to honor Rosa Parks with the Congressional Gold Medal, while also voting against 2009 legislation that extended federal hate crime protections to people targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In her opening questions to Sessions, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Sessions about his past statements against Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, the two Supreme Court decisions that legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, respectively. Despite Sessions’ personal feelings against the decisions, he said as attorney general he would follow the law. “It is the law of the land, it has been so established and settled for quite a long time, and it deserves respect, and I would respect it and follow it,” he said of Roe v. Wade, adding that he also considers same-sex marriage settled law.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was the first questioner to invoke Sessions’ role in the contentious 2016 presidential race. He asked Sessions if he could be impartial in any investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails or foundation, given his role in Donald Trump’s campaign. Sessions said no, and that he would recuse himself if any Clinton issues were to arise with him as attorney general. “I do believe that that could place my objectivity in question,” he said of statements he made during the campaign. “I believe the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse myself.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) followed up with more questions about the campaign, asking Sessions if he supports Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim immigration ban. “I do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied entry to the United States,” Sessions said, noting that Trump had revised the policy towards careful vetting of immigrants from countries with a history of terrorism. He did say that in some situations it would be appropriate to take religious affiliation into account, however. “Many people do have religious views that are inimical to the public safety of the United States,” he said.
Sessions also said that the results of the election vindicated his hard-line views on immigration. In response to a question from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) on his record opposing immigration bills that contain a path to citizenship, Sessions said, “I do believe that if you continually go through a cycle of amnesty that you undermine the respect for the law and encourage more illegal immigration into America. I believe the American people spoke clearly in this election and they agreed with my basic view.”
In a sign of how seriously some Democrats are taking the nomination, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey will break with Senate history and testify against Sessions on Tuesday or Wednesday, possibly the first time a sitting senator has testified against another siting senator nominated for a White House Cabinet position.
But it’s likely that none of this will matter.
If the committee votes along party lines, Sessions will pass on a vote of 11 to nine. There are no signs that any Republicans will defect, either in the committee or on the Senate floor. Maine’s Susan Collins, widely considered the most moderate Republican in the Senate, introduced Sessions, and Senators have a long tradition of deference for their colleagues on nominations.