Sessions says he will fairly enforce law

President-elect Donald Trump's pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington on Tuesday.  Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jeff Sessions sought to assure the American public Tuesday that he could set aside campaign rhetoric and fairly enforce the law as the next U.S. attorney general, asserting repeatedly at his confirmation hearing that he would not let his personal views interfere with court precedent or the will of Congress.

Sessions, R-Ala., said, although his politics might indicate otherwise, that he would abide by the Supreme Court decision underpinning abortion rights, and that he would similarly follow the 5-to-4 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

He said he understands that the waterboarding of suspects to elicit information is “absolutely improper and illegal,” and, though he voted against a law that banned the government’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, that he would uphold it as attorney general.

He declared that he would recuse himself from any Justice Department investigations of Hillary Clinton’s email practices or her family’s charitable foundation – mindful that his previous comments “could place my objectivity in question.”

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“We can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute,” he said.

On the first day of his two-day confirmation hearing, Sessions came under tough questioning from Democrats about his conservative, often controversial views on immigration, hate-crimes legislation and national security matters. He answered politely, although often forcefully, and frequently referred to his decades of experience in the Senate. He is expected to be confirmed.

“You know who I am,” Sessions said. “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.”

On some topics, Sessions, 70, held his ground. He said, for example, that he supports the continued operation of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for terrorism suspects.

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He said would not object if President-elect Donald Trump abandoned an executive action by President Barack Obama that allows people who came to the United States illegally as children to receive work permits and a reprieve from possible deportation, although he offered no solution for what to do with those who had received such reprieves.

He refused to agree to keep intact consent decrees prompting reform in police departments across the country, saying such agreements and the lawsuits that prompt them “undermine the respect for police officers” and should be approached with “caution.” Justice Department officials have been pressing to negotiate such reforms in Baltimore and Chicago before the end of the Obama administration.

“I just wouldn’t commit that there would never be any changes in them, and if departments have complied or reached other developments that could justify the withdrawal or modification of a consent decree, of course I would do that,” Sessions said. He said, though, that he would enforce existing agreements.

Sessions declined to say that he would adopt the policies of former attorney general Eric Holder when it comes to investigations involving the news media, including a promise not to jail reporters for doing their job.

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“I’m not sure,” he said when asked whether he would keep that Holder promise. “I have not studied those regulations.”

But Sessions also seemed to recognize that, if confirmed, he would have to abandon his persona as a far-right lawmaker and an unabashed Trump supporter. He said that the attorney general should enforce the law regardless of the president’s views, and that if the president presses for illegal action, the attorney general should resign.

“He or she must be willing to tell the president or other top officials ‘no’ if he or they overreach,” Sessions said. “He or she cannot be a mere rubber stamp.”

Sessions spoke in a room packed with demonstrators, reporters and his family members, and the proceedings were interrupted several times by protesters declaring him “evil” or “racist.” Capitol Police said 25 were arrested – 18 at the hearing and seven in Sessions’s office.

The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Sessions for a federal judgeship in 1986 amid allegations of racially insensitive remarks, and civil rights advocates and others have mounted a campaign to deny him the attorney general post.

Democratic senators took up many of their issues Tuesday, questioning Sessions on his opposition to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded federal hate-crimes law to include sexual orientation and gender identity, and his decision not to support an iteration of the Violence Against Women Act that gave Native Americans special protections. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked Sessions about prior comments in which he suggested, after a video emerged of Trump talking about grabbing women by the genitals, that such conduct was not necessarily sexual assault.

“Senator, is grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent, is that sexual assault?” Leahy said.

“Clearly, it would be,” Sessions responded. He later suggested that a sitting president could be prosecuted for doing so “if appropriate.”

Sessions said that he supported the Violence Against Women Act broadly, and that he thought hate crimes “were being prosecuted effectively in state courts where they would normally be expected to be prosecuted.” He sought to portray the allegations that sunk him in 1986 – when even Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., urged Congress to turn him down – as inaccurate.

Sessions said his controversial prosecution of civil rights advocates – rather than being an effort to stifle voting – was done in response to complaints from African American incumbent officials. He assailed white supremacists. “I abhor the Klan and what it represents and its hateful ideology,” he said.

He denied calling the NAACP “un-American” – a charge leveled against him by a fellow lawyer.

“I hope my tenure in this body has shown you that the caricature that was created of me was not accurate,” he said.

Sessions’ assertion on the Clinton investigations was an early highlight of the hearing, notable because the future of the inquiries has long been a source of public speculation. Trump said during the campaign that he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton, his Democratic rival, even after the FBI concluded that it could not recommend criminal charges. But he has since softened that stance and suggested that he wanted to move past the matter.

Sessions has been critical of the Clinton email investigation, and he has said it “seems like” the FBI had not fully investigated the dealings of the Clinton Foundation while Clinton was secretary of state. The two inquiries are separate, and although the email investigation has ended, the status of the foundation matter is murkier. Justice Department public integrity prosecutors told FBI agents last year that they had no case, but agents have apparently continued to press the matter.

A defense attorney for Clinton declined to comment on Sessions’s claim that he would recuse himself. Later in the hearing, pressed on whether he would recuse himself on Trump investigations, Sessions said he “would review it, and try to do the right thing.”

Of Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States, Sessions said he thought the president-elect favors stringent vetting of those coming from countries with a history of terrorism. He said he voted against a resolution that would have objected to a Muslim ban because he thought it would not allow for religion to be considered in the vetting process.

“Many people do have religious views that are inimical to the public safety of the United States,” Sessions said. He said he would not support an immigration ban that excluded people solely because they are Muslim.

Sessions also addressed issues of policing, saying that officers have come to feel “unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable actions of a few of their bad actors.” He cited violent-crime statistics, such as Chicago’s 4,368 shooting victims in 2016 and the 11 percent increase in homicides nationwide from 2014 to 2015 – and promised that he would prioritize turning the tide.

Sessions acknowledged that he is not well-informed about the recent high-profile cyber provocations by Russia. When asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., if he thought that the Russian government was behind the hacking of the Democratic Party computers, he said, “I have done no research into that.”

When Graham pointed out that the FBI had concluded Russia was behind the intrusion, Sessions observed, “at least that’s what’s been reported.” Later, he allowed, “I have no reason to doubt that,” and he said the response to such action might not be as simple as prosecuting a case.

“In many ways, the political response, the international foreign policy response, may be the only recourse,” he said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., asked Sessions whether he would let an investigation of Russian interference continue “even if it leads to the Trump campaign and Trump interests and associates.”

Sessions replied: “If the law is violated and they can be prosecuted, then you’ll have to handle that in an appropriate way.”

On Wednesday, 15 witnesses are scheduled speak about the nominee, including a former attorney general, the president of a national police union, and several civil rights and other advocates. Late Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee said that one of Sessions’s colleagues, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., is expected to testify against him.