Sen. Jeff Sessions – President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general – denied “damnably false charges” of racism Tuesday as he kicked off his hours-long confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sessions also said he’d play no role in considering prosecuting Hillary Clinton, opposed a ban on Muslims entering the United States and said he wouldn’t challenge existing Supreme Court decisions on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Here’s some of what we’ve learned so far from Session’s confirmation hearing:
He was ready to talk about race
Nowhere in Sessions’ prepared remarks was a rebuttal of the accusations that sank his 1986 nomination for a federal judgeship. But he decided to address them “head on” anyway, denying decades-old claims that he had offered supportive words about the Ku Klux Klan and criticized the NAACP. He said those were “damnably false charges.”
“I abhor the Klan and its hateful ideology,” Sessions said. “I never declared the NAACP was un-American.”
The Alabama senator and former US attorney told senators that in 1986, “there was an effort to caricaturize me as something I wasn’t.”
As he discussed those allegations of racism, his wife, Mary Sessions, became emotional in the crowd.
Sessions said he’d seen the horrors of racism “as a Southerner.”
“I know that was wrong, and I know we need to do better. We can never go back,” he said. “I am totally committed to maintaining the freedom and equality this country has to provide to every citizen and I can assure you that’s how I will approach it.”
He doesn’t support a Muslim ban
Sessions backed away from Trump’s campaign trail promise to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.
“I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States,” the Alabama senator said.
He did, though, open the door for religion to be used as a factor in approving visas. Under questioning from Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Sessions said some people hold religious views that are “inimical” to the safety of people in the United States.
Sessions also defended Trump, noting that he has backed away from his calls for an outright Muslim ban, instead aiming that ban at countries with terrorist activity.
He won’t help prosecute Clinton
“Lock her up” chants rang through nearly every Trump campaign rally this fall. Trump once promised to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate his Democratic rival.
If any of that happens, though, Sessions says he’ll have nothing to do with it.
He said he’d recuse himself, citing his role as a prominent Trump supporter during the 2016 presidential race.
“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.”
How he views abortion and same-sex marriage
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 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 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.
He addressed the ‘Access Hollywood’ moment
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, wasn’t willing to let Sessions dodge one of the biggest controversies Trump faced during the election: the “Access Hollywood” tape in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women.
“Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without her consent sexual assault?” Leahy asked.
Sessions responded, “Clearly it would be.”
He thinks waterboarding is ‘improper and illegal’
Sessions was pressed on waterboarding – which Trump has spoken in favor of bringing back even though the practice is considered torture under US and international law and is illegal.
Pressed by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, on whether waterboarding is torture, Sessions replied that Congress has, since waterboarding’s use in the early Bush administration during the war on terror, outlawed it.
“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.
He wouldn’t commit to a special prosecutor
Sessions was also grilled by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, on the Constitution’s “emoluments” clause, which bans foreign business dealings by officers of the United States – but might not actually apply to presidents.
The Alabama senator sidestepped the question, avoiding Blumenthal’s urging to appoint a special counsel if Trump or a member of his family ran afoul of the law and saying he’d have to look into it.