WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, sought to dispel Democrats’ portrayal of him as a conservative zealot Tuesday, denying during his Senate confirmation hearing that he harbored racist views, and vowing to step aside in any criminal probes of Hillary Clinton.
The courtly Alabama senator remained composed throughout the 10-hour hearing, his deep-South twang mostly steady, despite being interrupted multiple times by protesters and facing tough questions from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was peppered on his views and positions on a range of issues, and differed from the president-elect’s proposals to ban Muslims from entering the country and to bring waterboarding back for terrorism investigations.
Thirty years after allegations of race-motivated prosecutions and comments sunk his nomination for a federal judgeship, the former federal prosecutor and Alabama state attorney general also called those accusations “damnably false.”
“This caricature of me in 1986 was not correct,” said Sessions, an early and loyal supporter of Trump. The nominee’s actions as a federal prosecutor in Alabama are expected to be the focus again Wednesday when his confirmation hearing continues.
Though none of the Democrats sounded likely to support his nomination, their approach Tuesday suggested they had decided Sessions isn’t worth an all-out partisan war. Democrats don’t control enough votes to defeat any of Trump’s nominees on their own, but in the case of Sessions they did not seem inclined Tuesday to make it hard for their Republican colleagues to support him.
They did not dwell on the allegations of racism from three decades ago. Instead, senators in the minority party focused on pinning him down on how far he would go in carrying out Trump’s policy vision if confirmed to be the nation’s top law enforcement official.
“Do you agree with the president-elect that the United States can or should deny entry to all peoples of a particular religion?” Senator Patrick Leahy asked Sessions, bringing up Trump’s campaign pledge — still posted online — to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
Sessions countered that Trump had modified his proposal to be a form of “strong vetting” of people coming from countries with records of terrorism. He continued: “I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious groups should be denied admission to the United States.” He said he would not support a Muslim registry.
Sessions also said that current law clearly makes waterboarding “absolutely improper and illegal.” Trump repeatedly vowed during the campaign to bring the technique back as a means of interrogation for terror suspects, and Sessions himself has expressed support for it.
Senator Susan M. Collins, a Republican of Maine and the most moderate GOP senator, introduced Sessions Tuesday as “a dedicated public servant and a decent man,” as television cameras captured Sessions holding his young granddaughter in his lap. Collins listed Sessions’s work to convict two Ku Klux Klan members of murdering a black teen as one of several examples that he is not a man “motivated by racial animus.”
The panel’s chairman, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, directing the first round of questions, quickly brought up Sessions’s comments on the campaign trail about Clinton’s e-mail scandal and the Clinton Foundation. In an exchange, Sessions said to address concerns about the comments he made in a “contentious campaign,” he would formally recuse himself from any further investigations of those issues.
“I believe that would be the best approach for the country because we can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute,” Sessions said.
The nominee’s answers throughout the day projected a consistent theme — that he would vigorously uphold the law, even where he disagreed with it, and even if it brought him in conflict with the president.
The attorney general “must be willing to tell the president ‘No’ if he overreaches. He or she cannot be a mere rubberstamp,” Sessions said in his opening statement.
Sessions is known as one of the most hard-line conservatives on immigration in Congress and has fought against all the major bipartisan efforts to overhaul the current system. But he defended his record on immigration when Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, characterized Sessions’s views as inhumane.
“I do believe that if you continually go through a cycle of amnesty, that you undermine the respect for the law and encourage more illegal immigration,” Sessions said, growing somewhat heated.
“The American people spoke clearly in this election; I believe they agreed with my basic view, and I think it’s a good view, a decent view, a solid legal view . . . that we create a lawful system of immigration,” he continued, stabbing his index finger into the table.
It’s unclear how quickly the Senate will move to vote on Sessions’s nomination. Unlike several of Trump’s picks, Sessions has all of his financial disclosures and ethics paperwork in order. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said this week that he would like to get six or seven of Trump’s nominees confirmed by the president-elect’s first day in office.
Concerns about Sessions’s commitment to protect civil rights hung over the proceedings. Protests started shortly after Sessions entered the marble-covered hearing room, which debuted as the setting for the 1912 hearings on the Titanic’s sinking. Two men in the audience jumped on their chairs wearing white robes and peaked hoods reminiscent of the Klu Klux Klan, yelling that Sessions is a racist as they were dragged from the room by Capitol police officers.
“This man is evil!” a woman dressed as a pink Statue of Liberty, a member of the group Code Pink, screamed as she was muscled out of the room later in the morning.
Sessions’s nomination has revived decades-old accusations that as a federal prosecutor in Alabama he pursued a voting fraud case against three black civil rights leaders in 1985 for racially motivated reasons. Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick was one of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers who won the case against Sessions, and then testified against him in the 1986 Senate hearing. Last week, Patrick renewed his concerns about Sessions in a letter to the Judiciary Committee.
In that 1986 confirmation hearing, Sessions also was also accused of making racist remarks. On Tuesday he forcefully denied both, admitting that 30 years ago he didn’t do a very good job of defending himself.
“I never declared the NAACP was ‘un-American’ or that a [white] civil rights attorney was a disgrace to his race” for representing black clients, he said as part of his opening statement that preemptively touched on the major race-related charges raised three decades earlier.
As for the voting fraud case, Sessions said he brought it in response to complaints from black voters that their absentee ballots had been changed against their will.
“I conducted myself honorably and properly at that time,” he said. “I did not harbor the kind of animosities and race-based discrimination ideas that I was accused of. I did not.”
Underscoring the intensity of the civil rights community’s enduring feelings about Sessions is the witness list for second day of the hearing. Senator Corey Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, will be among those to testify against Sessions — in what his office described as the first time in the history of the clubby Senate that a sitting senator will testify against a colleague.
Representative John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights icon, and NAACP president Cornell Brooks are among the other African-American leaders testifying against Sessions Wednesday.