Attorney General Nominee Says He Can Stand Up to Trump

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Senator Jeff Sessions departs after a procedural vote on defense spending authorization legislation at the Capitol on December 11, 2014. The senator released a statement Tuesday decrying the Obama-Boehner budget deal, saying it exchanges increases in federal spending for distant savings that will never materialize. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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 times.

Muslim Ban

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. refugee program.

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.

Clinton Emails

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 that case."

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 tried.

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 false.

"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 enforcement post.

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.