Sen. Jeff Sessions assured a Senate panel Tuesday that if confirmed as attorney general he would enforce federal laws without prejudice and would not condone the politicization of the agency, including vowing to recuse himself from investigations of Hillary Clinton.
Mr. Sessions said his comments during the presidential campaign about possible criminal wrongdoing by Mrs. Clinton with her secret email setup and alleged pay-to-play dealing of the Clinton Foundation as secretary of state “could place my objectivity in question.”
“I believe the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse myself from any questions involving those kinds of investigations that involve Secretary Clinton,” he said during more than eight hours of questioning before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“This country does not punish its political enemies, but this country ensures that no one is above the law,” the Alabama Republican said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, asked whether Mr. Sessions had ever chanted, “Lock her up,” a frequent refrain at Donald Trump’s campaign rallies directed at the Democratic presidential nominee.
“No, I did not. I don’t think. I heard it in rallies and so forth, sometimes I think humorously done,” said Mr. Sessions. “I think that probably is one of the reasons I believe that I should not make any decision about any such case.”
SEE ALSO: Jeff Sessions called ‘pure evil’ by protester disrupting confirmation hearing
FBI Director James B. Comey determined that Mrs. Clinton’s unusual email setup, while she mishandled classified material and endangered government secrets, did not justify criminal charges. However, the Clinton Foundation still could be investigated.
Mr. Sessions, a former federal prosecutor and Alabama attorney general, has become the chief target of Democrats and liberal groups seeking to damage the president-elect’s agenda. The senator has been labeled a racist, a sexist, an anti-Muslim bigot and a homophobe.
During the first of two days of confirmation hearings, Mr. Sessions was forced to defend his character before fellow senators, some with whom he has served and co-authored legislation for 20 years.
“I deeply understand the history of civil rights and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters. I have witnessed it,” he said. “I understand the demands for justice and fairness made by the LGBT community. I understand the lifelong scars borne by women who are victims of assault and abuse.”
He also reminded the senators of their history together.
“You know who I am. You know what I believe in. You know that I am a man of my word and can be trusted to do what I say I will do,” he said in an opening statement.
Despite the opposition, including a campaign against him by the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Sessions is expected to win confirmation in the Republican-run Senate.
Mr. Sessions was pressed about his ability to break with Mr. Trump on legal issues, including what he would do if the president disregarded advice and pursued potentially illegal courses of action.
The nominee said he would have to resign in that case.
“I do believe that if an attorney general is asked to do something that’s plainly unlawful, he cannot participate in that. … That person would have to resign ultimately before agreeing to execute a policy that the attorney general believes would be unlawful or unconstitutional,” said Mr. Sessions.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, asked Mr. Sessions whether he supported Mr. Trump’s proposal to fight terrorism by temporarily banning Muslims from entering the U.S.
“I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States,” he said.
He added that he and Mr. Trump were “great believers in religious freedom and the right of people to exercise their religious beliefs.”
He noted that Mr. Trump had modified the proposal to focus “extreme vetting” on foreigners coming from terrorist hotbeds such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya.
Mr. Trump proposed the temporary ban on Muslims in response to the December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 people at an office Christmas party. At the time, Mr. Sessions said Mr. Trump’s idea deserved examination.
The hearing was repeatedly interrupted by protesters in the audience who screamed “evil” and “pig” at Mr. Sessions as they were hauled out of the room by police and arrested.
The audience in the back of the ornate hearing room was packed with activists for civil rights, gay rights, illegal immigrants and marijuana legalization.
In the front row, Mr. Sessions, 70, was surrounded by supporters and family members, including his wife, children and grandchildren.
A woman from the liberal activist group Code Pink was ejected from the Senate hearing room while yelling that Mr. Sessions was “pure evil.”
The woman, who was wearing a pink foam tiara, laughed loudly when Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, described his seatmate as someone committed to fair enforcement of the law.
“Why am I being taken out of here? This man is evil, pure evil,” the woman shouted as Capitol Police removed her.
Later, two men yelled, “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA.”
After they were removed from the room, a woman stood up and chanted the same slogan.
As police escorted her out the door, she yelled at Mr. Sessions: “You are a pig! Stop this racist pig from getting into power!”
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, defended Mr. Sessions against the racism charge. He described Mr. Sessions’ involvement in prosecuting two Ku Klux Klan members who beat to death Michael Donald, a young black man, in 1981.
Mr. Sessions helped secure the death penalty for one KKK member and a life sentence for the other. He also assisted the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in winning a civil lawsuit over the murder, a verdict that bankrupted and shut down the Alabama KKK.
“That’s a story that needs to be told,” Mr. Cruz said.
Mr. Sessions did not back off several positions that draw fire from the left.
He voiced his ongoing support for tougher enforcement of immigration laws. He said he would not oppose Mr. Trump if he rescinds President Obama’s executive amnesty for illegal immigrants.
He also said he did not see a problem with voter ID laws in general, although the provisions of individual laws would have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Democrats repeatedly questioned Mr. Sessions on his ability to enforce laws that he opposed, such as the latest version of the Violence Against Women Act and the Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act that added sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under hate crime laws.
Mr. Sessions pledged that he would in both cases.
“The law has been passed. The Congress has spoken. You can be sure I will enforce it,” he said of hate crime laws.
Mr. Whitehouse asked whether Mr. Sessions would be willing to pursue an investigation into Russian computer hacking during the presidential race “even if it leads to the Trump campaign and Trump interests and associates.”
“If the law is violated and they can be prosecuted, then of course you’ll have to handle that in an appropriate way,” he said, adding that retaliation against foreign powers was more likely to be handled in the political or diplomatic realm.
The hearing did not sway Mr. Sessions’ critics.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who attended the hearing in a show of opposition, said he didn’t believe what he heard. “He’s making statements that are contrary to the record,” he said.