Sen. Jeff Sessions cast himself as a strong protector of law and order at his confirmation hearing Tuesday, 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.
Sessions said the attorney general position “is not a political position, and anyone who holds it must have total fidelity to the laws and the Constitution of the United States.”
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The hearing was to resume Wednesday.
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.
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.
Two men wearing Ku Klux Klan costumes were removed from the confirmation hearing after they caused a disruption.
As security took them out of the room, they yelled, “you can’t arrest me; I am white!” and “white people own this government!”
Civil liberties advocates have seized on Sessions’ voting record and his appearances before groups that espouse harsh views on Muslims and immigrants. He was rejected for a federal judgeship by the Senate Judiciary Committee 30 years ago amid accusations of racial insensitivity.
In a prepared opening statement, 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.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, asked Sessions why he has opposed President Barack Obama’s efforts to pardon nonviolent drug offenders who were sentenced under guidelines that penalized crimes involving crack cocaine more harshly than powdered cocaine. Some argue that the guidelines have been unfair to African-Americans.
Sessions said he agreed with the reduction of the sentencing disparity between powdered and crack cocaine but did not necessarily agree with making it retroactive. Sessions said retroactive action undermines the finality of court proceedings. “It's an honorable debate to have,” Sessions said.
Durbin also questioned Sessions on his stances on immigration.
“I’m going to follow the laws passed by Congress. As a matter of policy, we disagreed on some of those issues,” Sessions said. “The attorney general’s role is to enforce the law.”
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she wants to evaluate whether Sessions can enforce laws that he voted against.
In her opening statement, Feinstein said “there is so much fear in this country,” particularly among African-Americans. She noted Sessions has in the past voted against hate-crimes legislation.
She said the role of attorney general is “an awesome responsibility” and said his job will be to enforce the laws, rather than to advocate his beliefs.
She noted that Trump said during the campaign that he would direct the attorney general to investigate his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“That’s not what an attorney general does,” Feinstein said.
Sessions said he’d recuse himself from investigations of Hillary Clinton if confirmed as attorney general.
Members of the Judiciary Committee include Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois. Durbin met recently with Sessions to discuss a number of issues, including gun violence and Department of Justice funding in the city of Chicago, comprehensive immigration reform and the future of DACA, criminal justice reform, policing and civil rights, race relations, and President-elect Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims in America.
“I have a long personal relationship with Sen. Sessions and know him to be a strong advocate for his political positions. However, the job of U.S. Attorney General requires a much broader world view than his current one,” Durbin said.
He added, “My responsibility as a member of the Judiciary Committee is to fairly and thoroughly consider nominations to positions in the Department of Justice, the Attorney General of the United States being the most important. While cabinet nominees are always cautious, our exchange was frank, and I told Senator Sessions that he would be hearing about these issues again at his hearing.”
Durbin said he and other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have requested testimony from outside witnesses on many issues, including: immigration; violence against women; civil rights, including LGBT protections, racial justice, and hate crimes; workers’ rights; national security and civil liberties; voting rights; criminal justice; and government conflicts of interest, transparency, and oversight.