WASHINGTON (AFP) – Donald Trump’s choice for attorney general branded accusations of racism against him “damnably false” on Tuesday, as the US Senate launched confirmation hearings for key nominees to the Republican president-elect’s cabinet.
Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama was the first of a parade of nominees set to go before his Republican and Democratic Senate peers this week, as Trump seeks to get some of his top people into place before taking office on January 20.
Sessions, whose nomination has drawn fierce pushback from Democrats, swiftly moved to tamp down a swell of criticism of his civil rights record, which has overshadowed his bid to become the nation’s top law enforcement official.
“These are damnably false charges,” he told a packed Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, referring to accusations about racially charged comments he allegedly made in the 1980s toward African Americans, and about civil rights groups when he was a federal prosecutor.
“I did not harbor the kind of animosity and race-based ideas that I was accused of. I did not.”
Sessions’ federal judgeship nomination collapsed in the mid-1980s amid racism accusations, something he described Tuesday as “an organized effort” to torpedo his appointment.
Sessions pointed to his involvement in several high-profile civil rights cases in his district, including one in which he successfully prosecuted a member of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan group for murdering a young black man.
But protesters were vocal about Sessions and the incoming Trump administration.
“Sessions is a racist, he’s illegitimate, just like the whole Trump regime,” shouted an African-American protester as he was escorted out of the hearing.
Moments before the hearing began, when Sessions was being greeted by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, two male protesters dressed in the white robes and hoods of the Klan began shouting about Sessions and expressing mock gratitude that such a conservative was in line to be attorney general. The men were forcibly removed.
Sessions sought to assuage concerns about his past, growing up in a segregated South where he personally witnessed systematic discrimination, insisting “we can never go back.”
“I abhor the Klan and what it represents, and its hateful ideology,” Sessions said.
‘Law of the land’
Democrats have little chance of derailing any of Trump’s nominees: all require a simple majority in the 100-seat Senate. Republicans control 52 seats, so the nominees are safe unless some Republicans defect.
But senators used the hearing to grill Sessions on a range of areas as torture, abortion, gay rights and immigration where he has taken a strongly conservative line.
Sessions promised to rigorously enforce the nation’s laws — even ones he opposed — and appeared to distance himself from the president-elect on several high-profile issues.
He acknowledged that the interrogation tactic known as waterboarding — which Trump pledged to bring back — is considered “absolutely improper and illegal” under US law, although years earlier he voted against anti-torture legislation in the Senate.
Asked whether religion should prevent an immigrant from entering the country, he said: “I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States.”
And he signalled that despite strong personal opposition to the Supreme Court ruling enshrining US abortion rights, he would not act to overturn it.
“It is the law of the land,” he said, “and I would respect it and follow it.”
Telling Trump ‘no’
When Sessions was questioned about whether he would follow Trump’s campaign call to jail rival Hillary Clinton over her emails, he said he would “recuse” himself from questions involving possible investigations of the Democrat.
“We can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute,” he said.
Sessions assured the panel that the attorney general “must be willing to tell the president ‘no’ if he overreaches.”
Committee chairman Grassley hailed Sessions’ lifetime of public service, saying: “He has done his duty, enforced the law fairly, and let the chips fall where they may.”
But the American Civil Liberties Union, which appears Wednesday in part two of the Sessions hearing, warned in prepared testimony that his “record of hostility to civil rights warrants the most serious examination, particularly given the role he would play as chief enforcer of our nation’s civil rights guarantees.”
And Democratic Senator Cory Booker has said he will testify against Sessions at the hearing — a departure from decades of Senate protocol.
Homeland security secretary designate John Kelly also appeared at his hearing Tuesday, telling senators: “I will do everything within my power to preserve our liberty, enforce our laws and protect our citizens.”
Three more hearings begin Wednesday, including that of Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil oilman tapped for secretary of state, on the same day of Trump’s first press conference in six months.
Democrats have expressed concern the vetting process is being rushed, especially given what they say are thorny conflict-of-interest issues.