WASHINGTON — Donald Trump's pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, used strong words in the first day of his Senate confirmation hearings to deny any hints of a racist past. On day two, a group of black lawmakers will speak out against his nomination — including New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, who will take the rare step of testifying against a current Senate colleague.
Booker's testimony underscores Democratic unease with the Alabama Republican, who was rejected for a federal judgeship by the Senate Judiciary Committee three decades ago amid accusations of racial impropriety.
Sessions on Tuesday called those accusations “damnably false,” denying that he had ever called the NAACP “un-American” and saying he had never harbored racial hostility. He said the allegations — which included that he had referred to a black attorney in his office as “boy” — are part of a false caricature.
“It wasn't accurate then,” Sessions said. “It isn't accurate now.”
Sessions has solid support from the Senate's Republican majority and from some Democrats in conservative-leaning states, and is expected to easily win confirmation. Still, he faces a challenge persuading skeptical Democrats that he'll be fair and committed to civil rights, a chief priority of the Justice Department during the Obama administration, as the country's top law enforcement official.
Republicans on the panel defended Sessions, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz describing how Sessions helped secure convictions in a 1981 murder of a black teenager when he was a federal prosecutor. Two Ku Klux Klan members, Henry Hays and James Knowles, were arrested and convicted.
“I know we need to do better, we can never go back,” Sessions said. “I am totally committed to maintaining the freedom and equality that this country has to provide to every citizen, I can assure you.”
Booker calls his opposition “a call to conscience” and said he didn't make the decision to speak at the hearing lightly.
“The attorney general is responsible for ensuring the fair administration of justice, and based on his record, I lack confidence that Senator Sessions can honor this duty,” Booker said.
Senate officials searched and could find no other case in the country's history when a sitting senator testified against a colleague picked for a Cabinet post.
Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, is also expected to testify against Sessions. Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from Louisiana, also will be appearing, as will David Cole, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Sessions also will have advocates in the hearing room Wednesday, including former Attorney General Michael Mukasey.
As Sessions was questioned Tuesday, protesters repeatedly interrupted the proceedings. Some loudly called Sessions a racist, and two were dressed as members of the Klu Klux Klan. They were quickly hustled out by police.
In his testimony, Sessions 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.” He vowed to stay independent from the White House and stand up to Trump when necessary.
He also distanced himself from some of Trump's public pronouncements.
Sessions said waterboarding, a now-banned interrogation technique for which Trump has at times expressed support, was “absolutely improper and illegal.”
Though he said he would prosecute immigrants who repeatedly enter the country illegally and criticized as constitutionally “questionable” an executive action by President Barack Obama that shielded certain immigrants from deportation, he said he did “not support the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States.”
Trump earlier in his campaign called for a temporary total ban on Muslims entering his country but has more recently proposed “extreme vetting.”
And Sessions asserted that he could confront Trump if needed, saying an attorney general must be prepared to resign if asked to do something “unlawful or unconstitutional.”
He also promised to recuse himself from any investigation there might be into Democrat Hillary Clinton, whom he had criticized during the presidential campaign. Trump said during the campaign he would name a special prosecutor to look into 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.
Sessions was first elected to the Senate in 1996 and before that served as Alabama attorney general and a U.S. attorney.
He's been a reliably conservative voice in Congress, supporting government surveillance programs, objecting to the proposed closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility — a sharp departure from Obama's Justice Department — and opposing a 2013 bipartisan immigration bill that included a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
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