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WASHINGTON U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s
choice for attorney general promised on Tuesday to stand up to
Trump, his close ally and future boss, saying he would oppose a
ban on Muslims entering the country and enforce a law against
waterboarding even though he voted against the law.
Questioned by a U.S. Senate committee tasked with confirming
his appointment, Senator Jeff Sessions distanced himself from
comments he had made defending Trump from criticism over a 2005
video that emerged in October showing Trump boasting about
grabbing women’s genitals.
At the time Sessions told The Weekly Standard magazine he
would not characterize the behavior as sexual assault. He later
said the comments were taken out of context. Asked on Tuesday
whether “grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent is …
sexual assault,” he replied, “Clearly, it would be.”
With 10 days to go before Trump enters the White House,
Sessions, 70, was the first of his Cabinet nominees to go before
a Senate committee. As attorney general, he will serve as the
top U.S. federal prosecutor and be responsible for giving
unbiased legal advice to the president and executive agencies.
With that in mind, lawmakers from both Trump’s Republican
Party and the rival Democratic Party sought to establish how
closely Sessions hewed to Trump positions and whether he could
put aside his staunchly conservative political positions to
enforce laws he may personally oppose.
A senator since 1997, Sessions was questioned by the Senate
Judiciary Committee, a panel on which he serves, and was widely
expected to be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Protesters accusing Sessions of having a poor record on
human rights interrupted the Capitol Hill proceedings several
Sessions said he would not support banning anyone from the
United States on the basis of religion, and said Trump’s
intentions were to restrict people from countries harboring
terrorists, not all Muslims. Elected on Nov. 8, Trump at one
point had campaigned on a proposal to temporarily ban Muslims
from entering the country.
Sessions said he favored “higher intensity of vetting” for
refugees seeking to enter the United States from countries that
harbor terrorists but added he would oppose ending the U.S.
Sessions said he would enforce a 2015 law that outlawed
waterboarding terrorism suspects even if it meant resisting
Trump. The senator said he had voted against the law, believing
those in high positions in the military and intelligence
community should be able to do so.
During the campaign Trump said waterboarding, which
simulates drowning and is widely regarded as torture, was an
effective technique and vowed to bring it back and make it “a
hell of a lot worse.” More recently Trump has said retired
Marine Corps General James Mattis, his nominee for secretary of
defense, had persuasively argued against it.
Sessions said he would enforce laws upheld by the U.S.
Supreme Court, even those he disagreed with, such as decisions
making abortion and same-sex marriage legal.
Sessions said he would recuse himself from investigating
Hillary Clinton’s email practices and charitable foundation if
confirmed as attorney general and would favor the appointment of
a special prosecutor for any such investigation.
“I have said a few things,” Sessions said about his comments
during the presidential race accusing former Democratic
presidential candidate Clinton of illegal activity. “I think
that is one of the reasons why I should not make a decision in
Trump, who defeated Clinton, said during the campaign that
if elected he would ask his attorney general to appoint a
special prosecutor to see that Clinton go to prison for her use
of a private email server while she was secretary of state and
her relationship with her family’s charitable foundation.
Sessions said he agreed with Trump in opposing Democratic
President Barack Obama’s executive action that granted temporary
protection to immigrant children brought to the country
illegally by their parents and would not oppose overturning it.
Sessions, representing the deeply conservative Southern
state of Alabama, has long opposed legislation that provides a
path to citizenship for immigrants. He has also been a close
ally of groups seeking to restrict legal immigration by placing
limits on visas used by companies to hire foreign workers.
As head of the Justice Department, the attorney general
oversees the immigration court system that decides whether
immigrants are deported or granted asylum or some other kind of
protection. A key plank of Trump’s election campaign was his
pledge to deport illegal immigrants and to build a wall along
the U.S. border with Mexico.
Sessions also said he agreed with his many of his fellow
Republicans that the military prison for foreign terrorism
suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba remain open. The Obama
administration has sought to close the prison, opened by Bush in
2002, and bring its prisoners to U.S. civilian courts to be
DEFENSE AGAINST RACISM
Sessions several times defended himself against charges of
racism. He said allegations that he harbored sympathies toward
the Ku Klux Klan, a violent white supremacist organization, are
“I abhor the Klan and what it represents and its hateful
ideology,” Sessions said in his opening remarks.
Sessions was denied confirmation to a federal judgeship in
1986 after allegations emerged that he made racist remarks,
including testimony that he called an African-American
prosecutor “boy,” an allegation Sessions denied.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said the Senate
Judiciary Committee had received letters from 400 civil rights
organizations opposing his confirmation to the country’s top law
He also said he opposed lowering mandatory minimum sentences
for non-violent drug offenders and did not see voter
identification laws as a barrier to voting, a reversal of two
key stances of the Obama administration.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander, Eric Beech, Sarah
Lynch, Dustin Volz and Ian Simpson)
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