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Sen. Jeff Sessions Addresses Past Racism Controversy In Confirmation Hearing


Senators put questions to President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department today. They weren't the only ones who made themselves heard on Capitol Hill.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.

CORNISH: Protesters repeatedly disrupted a hearing for Senator Jeff Sessions, shouting opposition to his record on civil rights and immigration. Sessions has worked in the Senate for the past 20 years. Now he's in line to become U.S. attorney general.

NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the hearing. Carrie, welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: So this same committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee, rejected Jeff Sessions for a federal judgeship 30 years ago. And at that hearing, there were a lot of concerns raised about racially insensitive remarks that Sessions had made. So how did the attorney general nominee address that controversy today?

JOHNSON: Well, today Sessions said that experience was very painful. He said his statements back then were misconstrued, and he said he was turned into a caricature.


JEFF SESSIONS: I deeply understand the history of civil rights in our country and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters.

JOHNSON: But Audie, today Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, made a case that Jeff Sessions inflated his support for civil rights cases and overstated his accomplishments. Sessions also said he supports laws that requires voters to show IDs, and he didn't really engage with other questions at the hearing about scant evidence of voter fraud which President-elect Donald Trump talks about a lot.

CORNISH: Now, Democrats on the committee also tried to get Sessions to declare independence from this incoming administration, right? How did that go over?

JOHNSON: Senator Sessions says he knows he'll have a very different job if he becomes the attorney general. His job will become one of his - an independent investigator and enforcer of laws. Here's what he said.


SESSIONS: He or she must be willing to tell the president or other top officials if - no, if he or they overreach. He or she cannot be a mere rubber stamp.

JOHNSON: Now, Democrats tried to get Sessions to agree to appoint special prosecutors if he determines Trump or a member of the Trump family have traded on nonpublic information or Trump somehow runs afoul of conflict of interest laws. But they did not get that commitment from Senator Jeff Sessions today.

CORNISH: Now, I understand there was one big pledge when it came to politics and law enforcement.

JOHNSON: Yeah, it was a pretty dramatic moment pretty early on in the day. The attorney general nominee said he'd step aside from any investigation involving former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Sessions said he didn't think he was one of the Trump allies who was chanting lock her up on the campaign trail, but he says he heard that kind of talk.


SESSIONS: I do believe that that could place my objectivity in question. I've given that thought. I believe the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse myself from any questions involving those kind of investigations that involve Secretary Clinton that were raised during the campaign.

JOHNSON: Now, Audie, to be clear, Sessions has committed himself to removing himself or recusing himself from any investigation of Hillary Clinton's email or the Clinton Foundation. He would not pledge to name a special prosecutor to look into any possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign over those recent hacks, though.

CORNISH: We mentioned protesters earlier. I know more than a dozen got removed from the hearing. How unusual is that?

JOHNSON: Well, there are always protesters on Capitol Hill, but the volume and the intensity seemed a little stronger today probably because Sessions is the first Trump nominee to get a hearing. And the Justice Department oversees so many controversial issues.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, that top Democrat on the committee, also raised the point that there are deep concerns and anxieties throughout the country now and some real fear about what the Trump administration might bring. And that's the context in which the Senate is considering Senator Sessions' record to become the top law enforcement officer in the country.

CORNISH: And did Senator Sessions try to alleviate any other concerns?

JOHNSON: Well, he did rule out a return to waterboarding of detainees. He said that he does not support a possible ban on Muslims from entering the country. There's going to be a lot more to come Wednesday when a series of outside witnesses is going to testify.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.