Hearings regarding incoming cabinet appointments commenced on Tuesday, with the questioning of Donald Trump’s attorney general pick, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions.
The duty of the U.S. attorney general is to uphold and enforce the laws of the nation — a role the NAACP and other civil rights groups argue the senator is not fit to assume.
As Republicans look to tout the senator’s extensive legal track record, Democrats aim to question Sessions’ history of racially insensitive comments, which are believed to have led to his 1986 rejection from a federal judgeship.
The 1986 nomination failure that occurred some three decades ago marks the senator’s last appearance before the Judiciary Committee. Sessions’ nomination failed, in part, due to allegations that he described the NAACP and other civil rights groups as “un-American” and alluded to a white lawyer’s being a disgrace to his race for representing African American clients.
In 1986, Sessions testified that he didn’t remember making these claims. On Tuesday, the senator denied owning these remarks, saying, “I never declared that the NAACP was ‘un-American’ or that a civil rights attorney was a ‘disgrace to his race.'”
He again pressed the matter later on Tuesday, saying allegations that he is in anyway sympathetic to groups like the Ku Klux Klan are “damnably false.”
Sessions has represented Alabama in the U.S. Senate since 1996, and responded to questions about his ability to transition from the legislative to executive branch, saying, “I don’t think I have any lack of ability to separate the roles that I’ve had.”
In regard to separating his political past from his role as attorney general, the senator stated on Tuesday that he would “recuse himself” from any prosecution that might emerge from investigations into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Sen. Chuck Grassley noted that current Attorney General Loretta Lynch had said she would “defer” to the FBI in regard to the Clinton Foundation email investigation, but never officially recused herself from the inquiry.
When asked by Sen. Richard Blumenthal if he will also recuse himself from votes on other cabinet nominees while he is still serving in the Senate, Sessions said he will indeed recuse himself on the vote for his own confirmation but hasn’t decided on his plans for other nominees.
Leading up to and during Sessions’ opening remarks, audience members reacted audibly with chants, laughs and outbursts — after which they were removed from the hearing room.
When pressed on his past support for waterboarding as a military interrogation tactic, Sessions stood by the fact that there was once a determination that it was “proper,” but is now deemed “absolutely improper and illegal” by Congress.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, opened the committee hearing, saying the senator’s record “is a life of public service.”
The newest member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein also gave introductory remarks, in which she repeated her commitment to Sessions that the appointment approval process is going to be “fair and thorough.”
After introducing DREAMer Denisse Rojas as among those present in the audience, Sen. Feinstein recalled Sen. Sessions’ record in voting against the DREAM Act, which he called “a reckless proposal for mass amnesty.” Sessions also voted against attempts at immigration reform in 2006, 2007 and 2013.
In the wake of Trump’s focus throughout his presidential campaign on fixing American immigration policy and building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration and domestic security are expected to play a major roll in cabinet appointment hearings this week.
Sen. Susan Collins listed Sessions’ state-level record of working with civil rights voter fraud cases during his 12 years as U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Alabama, a post the University of Alabama graduate assumed from 1981 to 1993. She noted the senator’s history of backing African Americans, saying, “These are not the actions of an individual who’s motivated by racial animus.”
A Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire asked Sessions to list the 10 most significant litigated matters that he personally handled, and four of those listed involved voting rights and desegregation of public schools in Alabama.
In a questionnaire supplement, the senator clarified that his role in these listed cases was to “provide support for the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, attorneys. I reviewed, supported and co-signed complaints, motions, and other pleadings and briefs that were filed during my tenure as U.S. attorney. I provided assistance and guidance to the Civil Rights Division attorneys, had an open-door policy with them, and cooperated with them on these cases.”
Sen. Feinstein described a national, post-election climate of alarm in her opening remarks, saying, “There is a deep fear about what a Trump Administration will bring in many places, and this is the context in which we should consider Sessions’ record to be the chief law enforcement in America.”
In Sen. Sessions’ opening statement the cabinet nominee said he an “abiding commitment to pursuing and achieving justice and a record of doing just that.”
Reports emerged from independent ethics lawyers on Tuesday that Sessions failed to disclose his ownership of oil interests on more than 600 acres of Alabama land. While the holdings are reported to produce a small revenue in the range of $4,700 annually, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others have expressed concern over the omission.