Sessions takes on racism charges; pledges to recuse himself from Clinton probes

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Story highlights

  • Sessions said he would recuse himself from any investigations involving Hillary Clinton
  • He pledged to respect Supreme Court decisions on abortion and same-sex marriage

Washington (CNN)Sen. Jeff Sessions faced hours of questioning from some of his closest colleagues on Tuesday, as he defended himself, his record and the President-elect who nominated him on fronts including racism allegations and torture.

During the wide-ranging Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Democrats waged several fronts against Sessions, trying to trip him up, peg him into promises and to make clear positions from Donald Trump that concern them.
Sessions maintained his cool throughout the grilling, repeatedly speaking about how "painful" past allegations of racism have been and defending his record.
    Hours earlier, as the hearing began, Sessions didn't wait for his record on race to be brought up before addressing it, diverging from his prepared statement to address "head on" the very allegations that helped sink his nomination for a judgeship in 1986.
    "I abhor the Klan and its hateful ideology," Sessions said.
    He also pledged to recuse himself from all investigations involving Hillary Clinton -- citing inflammatory comments he made during a "contentious" campaign season -- and said he would respect Supreme Court rulings and US law on issues including abortion, torture and same-sex marriage even if he does not agree with them.
    Sessions will likely be confirmed. Republicans hold a majority in the Senate and no GOP senators have spoken out against the' nomination. Instead, Democrats could only hope to trip Sessions up while making their case to the American people against the Trump administration.
    In one of the more memorable moments, the Alabama senator, who was one of Trump's earliest defenders on the campaign trail, was also asked about Trump's comments caught on a hot mic bragging about aggressive sexual behavior.
    "Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent, is that sexual assault?" asked Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy.
    "Yes," Sessions said.
    Sessions had been previously quoted in the immediate aftermath of the tape questioning the contents of the tape, in which Trump bragged about being able to grab women by the genitals with impunity, as sexual assault. He made clear he had not intended to make that suggestion.
    Many senators acknowledged the awkwardness of the situation, given that Sessions has long served in the Senate and on the very committee interrogating him. Democrat Richard Blumenthal noted Session is a "friend," before saying he still intended to be tough.
    Democrats pressed Sessions on uncomfortable topics but there were no fireworks. Firebrand Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said he had been concerned the hearing would get "ugly" but praised his Democratic colleagues for being "largely restrained from going down that road."
    Sessions was introduced by two fellow GOP senators, fellow Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby and moderate Maine Sen. Susan Collins.
    Collins gave a vigorous defense of her colleague, though she noted she has not always agreed with the firebrand as a more moderate member of her party.
    "I have never witnessed anything to suggest that Senator Sessions is anything but a dedicated public servant and decent man," Collins said, directly addressing Sessions' 1986 judicial nomination.
    She noted that years later, Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched his affiliation from Republican to Democrat, singled out his vote against Sessions as the vote he regretted.
    "'I have since found Sen. Sessions is egalitarian,'" she quoted Specter in saying in 2009.
    Protesters began interrupting the event before the hearing began, and continued throughout the moment. Right as Sessions was walking in, two demonstrators apparently dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan were escorted out of the room. During one of his introductions, a woman protesting with Code Pink was escorted out calling Sessions "evil," and two more separate protests were taken out during his opening statements, including a man yelling that Sessions is "racist."
    The protests continued sporadically throughout the testimony, each time being cleared quickly while the senators calmly waited.
    Sessions' hearing will continue into Wednesday, when Democrats will call several witnesses to testify against him, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who will become the first sitting senator to testify against confirmation of a fellow member. Other witnesses include former Justice officials and law enforcement representatives who will support Sessions, as well as officials from the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP, who will oppose him.

    Russia and Trump

    Sen. Al Franken asked in the early evening about CNN's reporting that classified documents presented last week to President Barack Obama and Trump included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Trump.
    "I'm not aware of any of those activities," Sessions said. "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two during the campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians and I'm unable to comment on it.
    Franken followed up, asking if Sessions knows "what compromising personal and financial information the Russians claim to have."
    "Sen. Franken, allegations get made about candidates all the time and they've been made about President-elect Trump a lot sometimes," Sessions said. "Some of them, virtually all of them have been proven to be exaggerated or untrue. I would just say to you that I have no information about this matter. I have not been in on the classified briefings and I'm not a member of the intelligence committee so I'm just not able to give you any comment on it at this time.

    Civil rights, Clinton and abortion

    The issue of civil rights came up repeatedly throughout the hearing, both from Democrats trying to box in Sessions' positions and Republicans trying to give Sessions an opportunity to clear his record.
    Sessions said he was keenly aware of civil rights and their importance.
    "I deeply understand 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," Sessions said. "I have witnessed it. We must continue to move forward and never back. I understand the demands for justice and fairness made by our LGBT community. I will ensure that the statutes protecting their civil rights and their safety are full enforced. I understand the lifelong scars born by women who are victims of assault and abuse."
    Sessions, in his opening statement, emphasized the importance of law enforcement and crime fighting. He made the case that safety is a "civil right" and cited the increase in violent crime in Chicago and other cities as "not an anomaly, but the beginning of a dangerous trend."
    "It is a fundamental civil right to be safe in your home and your community," he said.
    Sessions' comments came during the first of several blockbuster confirmation hearings that will play out on Capitol Hill over the coming weeks as senators consider Trump's Cabinet picks.
    Through the hearing, Democrats laid down several markers for Sessions.
    Addressing the idea of prosecuting Clinton, a theme of Trump's campaign, Sessions said he wouldn't be involved.
    "I believe the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse myself from questions involving those kinds of investigations involving Secretary Clinton that were raised during the campaign and could be otherwise connected to it," Sessions said, upon questioning by Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley.
    "I believe that would be best for the country because we can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute," Sessions said.
    He also denied participating in the "Lock her up" chants during the campaign heard at Trump rallies.
    "No I did not, I don't think. I heard it ... sometimes humorously done," he said.
    Sessions said he would respect the 1973 Supreme Court decision allowing abortion and the more recent Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage -- even if he doesn't agree with the court's decisions.
    "I believe it violated the Constitution," Sessions said in response to a question from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein about whether he stands by his past statements calling Roe v. Wade a "colossal" mistake.
    "It is the law of the land, it has been settled for some time. ... I will respect it and follow it," Sessions said.
    Likewise, Sessions said same-sex marriage is settled.
    "The Supreme Court has ruled on that, the dissents dissented vigorously, but it was 5-4 and ... I will follow that decision," he said.

    Intelligence, waterboarding and Muslim ban

    Sessions also faced a series of questions on the issue of torture and waterboarding, a hot topic since Trump has spoken in favor of the practice.
    Waterboarding is considered torture by US and international law, though Trump has said he feels it can be brought back into use in the field.
    Sessions emphasized that Congress has outlawed since it was used in the George W. Bush administration during the war on terror.
    "Congress has taken an action now that makes it absolutely improper and illegal to use waterboarding or any other form of torture in the United States by our military and by all our other departments and agencies," he said.
    Sessions has come under fire for his support of hard-line immigration policies also embraced by Trump, and deferred on a question as to whether he agrees with past statements from Trump calling for a complete ban on foreign Muslims from entering the United States -- saying that Trump has since moved away from that position.
    "I believe the President-elect has subsequent to that statement made clear that he believes the focus should be on individuals coming from countries that have histories of terrorism, and he's also stated that his policy and what he'd suggest is strong vetting," Sessions said in response to questioning from Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy about whether he supports denying entry to the US based on religion.
    Leahy asked why Sessions then voted against a sense of the Senate resolution that opposed using religion as a basis for denying entry into the US.
    "Many people do have religious views that are inimical to the values of the United States," Sessions said, saying he opposed the resolution because it barred considering religion at all.
    "I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States. We have great Muslim citizens who have contributed in so many ways," Sessions said. "Americans are great believers in religious freedom and the right to exercise their religious beliefs."
    Sessions dodged taking a position on the intelligence community's conclusion that Russians engaged in hacking and other activities to interfere with the US election. Under questioning from outspoken Russia critic Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sessions said he needed to be briefed on the matter but had no reason to doubt the conclusions of the FBI.

    Trump comments from 'Access Hollywood'

    Sessions was also asked about Trump's statements off the campaign trail -- a 2005 tape that surfaced during the campaign that captured Trump on a hot mic bragging about aggressive sexual behavior, including using fame to grab women by their genitals with impunity.
    After the "Access Hollywood" tape surfaced, Sessions told a reporter that he didn't believe doing so was sexual assault, a position he later walked back.
    Leahy asked Sessions point blank: "Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without her consent, is that sexual assault?"
    "Clearly it would be," Sessions said.
    Leahy asked if Sessions would prosecute a "sitting president" or other high-level elected official if they were accused of the behavior that Trump described in the tape.
    "The President is subject to certain lawful restrictions and they would be required to be applied by the appropriate law enforcement official if appropriate, yes," Sessions said.
    Leahy asked again whether the conduct in the tape would be considered sexual assault.
    "The confusion about the question was a hypothetical question, and it related to what was said on the tape," Sessions said in defense. "I did not remember at the time whether this was suggested to be an unaccepted, unwanted type, which certainly would meet the definition."
    "Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent, is that sexual assault?" Leahy asked again.
    "Yes," Sessions said.

    Tense moments with Franken

    One of the tensest moments questioning Sessions' record came from Franken, who was the first on the committee to raise concerns about Sessions' questionnaire that he submitted to the committee ahead of the hearing -- a key piece of Democrats' messaging against Sessions in the lead-up to the hearing.
    Franken zeroed in on two issues: a past statement in which Sessions said he "filed 20 or 30 cases" on desegregation and three of four civil rights cases he highlighted to the committee as being "personally" involved in.
    Under questioning, Sessions admitted to Franken that the "20 to 30" estimate from 2009 was not accurate.
    Franken also noted on the civil rights cases Sessions listed in his questionnaire as being part of the 10 most significant pieces of litigation he "personally handled," as the question from the committee asked, lawyers involved in those cases say Sessions was not involved.
    "We worked in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which brought those lawsuits; we handled three of the four ourselves," wrote three of the lawyers in a Washington Post op-ed. "We can state categorically that Sessions had no substantive involvement in any of them."
    All three, J. Gerald Hebert, Joseph D. Rich and William Yeomans, have Democratic or left-leaning affiliations, and Republicans including Cruz later noted that Hebert opposed Sessions in 1986 and recanted a select portion of his testimony during that hearing.
    "We decided that was an appropriate response since it was a major historic cases in my office," Sessions said of filling out the questionnaire, saying he provided support to the case as attorney general. "It was 30 years ago, and my memory in these cases, I was supportive."
    "To me as a layman, it sounds to me like 'filed' means, 'I led the case,' or, 'I supervised the case,' it doesn't mean that 'my name was on it,'" Franken said. "Setting aside any political or ideological differences that you or I may have, DOJ is facing significant challenges ... and our country needs an attorney general who doesn't misrepresent or inflate their involvement on any single issue, so I consider this serious stuff."