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Sessions Faces 2nd Day of Questioning at Confirmation Hearing

  • VOA News

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) takes his seat to resume his testimony during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for his nomination to become U.S. attorney general on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 10, 2017.

U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions faced a second day of confirmation hearings Wednesday as President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, including testimony against him by a fellow sitting senator.

Senator Cory Booker appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in an unprecedented move that he said was prompted by "the immense powers of the attorney general combined with the deeply troubling views of this nominee." Booker said Sessions' "record says we can't count on him."

WATCH: Booker testifies against Sessions


House members John Lewis and Cedric Richmond were among those who testified.

Some Democrats are concerned that Sessions, as the nation's top law enforcement official, will not uphold civil rights laws. They point to allegations that Sessions made racist remarks in the past — remarks that, 30 years ago, resulted in the Senate's rejection of his nomination to be a federal judge. He was alleged, for example, to have called an African-American lawyer "boy" and to have referred to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the nation's foremost civil rights groups, as "un-American."

"It wasn't accurate then, it isn't accurate now," Sessions told the lawmakers. He said he "understands the history of civil rights and the horrendous impact that relentless and systematic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters."

The country, Sessions said, can never go back, and he vowed to protect equality for every citizen, including gays and transgenders — although he has voted against various bills aimed at protecting gay rights during his 20 years in the Senate.

WATCH: Protesters disrupt Sessions confirmation hearing

Demonstrators shouting anti-racist slogans at Sessions interrupted his testimony at one point and were taken out of the room.

The staunchly conservative Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump for president but appeared to distance himself from some of Trump's public pronouncements during Tuesday's hearing.

WATCH: Sessions questioned on Trump's proposed ban on Muslims entering US

He promised to crack down on illegal immigration but said he was against any proposal to ban Muslim immigration to the U.S. on the basis of religion. He also said he didn't think there was a need to put Muslims who are U.S. citizens into a registry; not only would it most likely be unconstitutional, he said, but Muslim citizens should not be treated differently than anyone else.

Sessions called President Barack Obama's executive order to defer deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children constitutionally questionable. He avoided a direct answer when he was asked whether he would recommend that Trump scrap the order, but said he would have "no objection" to such a move.

Sessions told the lawmakers he did not want to stop admitting refugees to the U.S., but he said there needed to be a "higher intensity of vetting" for those coming from countries known to harbor terrorists.

Opposition to waterboarding

Contradicting Trump, Sessions said he would uphold the law against waterboarding — a tactic that mimics the sensation of drowning — when questioning terror suspects.

Sessions also testified that he "has no reason to doubt" the conclusion by U.S. intelligence that Russia meddled in the presidential election by hacking into computers to try to help Trump win.

And Sessions said he wanted to keep the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba open, calling it a secure place to hold terror suspects. Obama promised to shut down the facility by the end of his term, which ends next week.

Sessions made it clear that he was a foe of abortion rights, but recognized that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion, was the law of the land, along with the 2015 ruling legalizing gay marriage.

Those pronouncements from Sessions are likely to cause dismay among some of the more conservative members of the Senate. Liberals will continue to question his civil rights record.

WATCH: Sessions on recusing himself from Clinton email probe

Sessions voiced complaints during the lengthy presidential campaign about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server and her handling of classified material while she was secretary of state. But he said that if he was confirmed as the country's top law enforcement official he would remove himself from any involvement in discussions about possible prosecution of her in connection with the emails or the charitable Clinton Foundation her family controls.

Nothing came out of Tuesday's hearing that would likely place Session's confirmation as attorney general in doubt.

But one Democrat, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, said he would testify against Sessions. It would be the first time in Senate history that a sitting senator testified against a colleague nominated for a Cabinet position. Booker said the "deeply troubling views of this nominee are a call to conscience."

Homeland security choice

Also Tuesday, the Senate's Homeland Security Committee questioned retired Marine General Mark Kelly, Trump's choice for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Kelly noted that most undocumented immigrants come to the United States for only one reason: "to have some economic opportunity and escape violence."

He said a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico would not in itself keep out illegal immigrants: "I believe the defense of the southwest border really starts about 1,500 miles [2,400 kilometers] south, and that is partnering with some great countries as far south as Peru."

Kelly said the key to stopping the illegal drug trade south of the U.S. border was "stopping demand."

When asked about so-called enhanced interrogation techniques of terror suspects, Kelly said the U.S. should never come close to "crossing a line." He also said he had "high confidence" in the findings on the Russian election hacking.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, center, flanked by the committee's ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., right, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, left, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 10, 2017.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, center, flanked by the committee's ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., right, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, left, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 10, 2017.


Speaking to VOA, Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso said he hoped the confirmation process would be swift, like it was eight years ago. "When President Obama came into office [in 2009], he had his Cabinet, a core working group, confirmed the first day,” he said.

Democrats say numerous Trump nominees have been slow to complete paperwork and release ethics and financial information considered to be standard requirements for Cabinet picks and federal agency heads.

Republicans control 52 seats in the 100-member Senate. Should they maintain party unity behind Trump’s nominees, they can all but assure the president-elect’s team will be confirmed. Democrats can delay votes, but are unable to block nominees on their own.


Other Trump Cabinet picks to face confirmation hearings this week will include former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson, nominated as secretary of state, and Elaine Chao, who was chosen to be transportation chief.

Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis, a retired Marine general, has his confirmation hearing Thursday, along with U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo, picked for Central Intelligence Agency director; business investor Wilbur Ross, named as commerce secretary; and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Trump's choice for housing and urban development secretary.

VOA's Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.

WATCH: Confirmation process explained

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