Tuesday 20 March 2018

I'd stand up to Trump as attorney general, Jeff Sessions tells senators

Attorney general-designate Jeff Sessions makes his point to senators on Capitol Hill (AP)
Attorney general-designate Jeff Sessions makes his point to senators on Capitol Hill (AP)

Alabama senator Jeff Sessions has strongly denied "damnably false" accusations of previous racist comments as he battled Democratic concerns about the civil rights commitment he would bring as Donald Trump's attorney general.

Mr Sessions vowed at his confirmation hearing to stay independent from the White House and stand up to Mr Trump when necessary.

He 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 jail in Cuba.

But the Republican also distanced himself from some of Mr Trump's public pronouncements, saying waterboarding, a now-banned harsh interrogation technique that Mr Trump has at times supported, was "absolutely improper and illegal".

Though he said he would prosecute immigrants who repeatedly entered the US illegally and criticised as constitutionally "questionable" an executive action by President Barack Obama that shielded certain migrants from deportation, Mr Sessions said he did not "support the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States".

Earlier in his campaign Mr Trump called for a temporary total ban on Muslims entering the country but has more recently proposed "extreme vetting".

And Mr Sessions asserted that he could confront Mr 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 Mr Sessions' confirmation by the Republican-dominated Senate.

Yet as he outlined his priorities, his past - including a 1986 judicial nomination that failed amid allegations that he made racially charged comments - hovered over the proceedings.

Protesters calling Mr Sessions a racist repeatedly interrupted and were hustled out by Capitol police.

Mr Sessions vigorously denied that he had ever called the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) "un-American".

He said he had never harboured racial animus, calling the claims - which included that he referred to a black lawyer in his office as "boy" - part of a false caricature.

"It wasn't accurate then," he said. "It isn't accurate now."

Mr Sessions 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," he said.

"I am totally committed to maintaining the freedom and equality that this country has to provide to every citizen."

Politics got its share of attention, too, with Mr Sessions promising to recuse himself from any investigation there might be into Democrat Hillary Clinton, whom he had criticised during the presidential campaign.

Mr Trump said during the campaign he would name a special prosecutor to look into Mrs Clinton's use of a private email server, but he has since backed away. The FBI and Justice Department declined to bring charges last year.

Mr Sessions, known as one of the most staunchly conservative members of the Senate, 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.

He has solid support from the Senate's Republican majority and from some Democrats in conservative-leaning states.

But he faces a challenge persuading sceptical Democrats that he will be fair and committed to civil rights, a chief priority of the Justice Department during the Obama administration, as the country's law enforcement supremo.

Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein asked whether he could be trusted to enforce the laws he had voted against, including expanded hate crime protections.

Mr Sessions said he could, noting that he accepted the Roe v Wade opinion on abortion as the law of the land even though he personally opposed it.

If confirmed, Mr Sessions would succeed Attorney General Loretta Lynch and would be in a position to reshape Justice Department priorities not only in civil rights but also environmental enforcement, criminal justice and national security.


Press Association

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