Donald Trump’s nominee for US
attorney general denied being a racist on Tuesday and promised to act as a restraint on the president-elect, as protesters began disrupting the transition of power in Washington
Jeff Sessions described allegations of bigotry that have dogged his career as “damnably false charges” during a confirmation hearing that was repeatedly interrupted by furious demonstrators chanting: “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.”
“I abhor the Klan and what it represents, and its hateful ideology,” Sessions told the Senate judiciary committee. He pledged as America’s top law enforcement official to protect “our African American brothers and sisters” as well as the rights of LGBT people and women.
Sessions, a veteran senator from Alabama
, distanced himself from several of Trump’s most extreme campaign promises, declaring that “waterboarding” – the torture technique by US forces – was illegal, and that there should be no ban on all Muslims entering the US.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s most senior Democrat, told Sessions that there were “deep concerns and anxieties” among some Americans about Trump’s agenda, which includes a crackdown on illegal immigration and return to “tough on crime” policing.
“Communities across this country are concerned about whether they will be able to rely on the Department of Justice to protect their rights and freedoms,” said Feinstein. Protesters were forcibly removed from the hearing at several points.
Sessions defended his brand of law-and-order conservatism, pledging to reverse a recent spike in violent crime in some US cities and to tackle a heroin addiction epidemic that has afflicted several regions. “These trends cannot continue,” said Sessions.
However, he then broke with a series of other positions that Trump took during his campaign for the presidency, which had threatened to radically reshape the country.
Amid fears about how Trump, who has appeared obsessed by personal score-settling, intends to use the power of the US government, Sessions said the attorney general “must be willing to tell the president ‘no’ if he overreaches. He or she cannot be a mere rubber stamp.”
Sessions, who would serve a president who campaigned on a promise to “lock up” Hillary Clinton, also promised to recuse himself from any justice department investigations of the defeated Democratic candidate due to his past political remarks.
“This country does not punish its political enemies, but this country ensures that no one is above the law,” said Sessions. Trump led campaign rallies in frenzied chants calling for Clinton’s prosecution for using a private email server while secretary of state. Asked if he ever joined in the chants of “lock her up,” Sessions said: “No, I did not … I don’t think.”
The 70-year-old senator also broke with Trump on the president-elect’s view that US forces should be allowed to torture terrorism suspects. Acknowledging that Congress had deemed the “waterboarding” technique unlawful, Sessions said: “It is absolutely improper and illegal to use waterboarding.”
Despite having voted last year against a measure outlawing a ban on people entering the US based on their religion, Sessions also cast further doubt on the future of Trump’s campaign pledge to bar all Muslims from coming into the country.
Sessions said that while he believed that “many people do have religious views that are inimical to the public safety of the United States”, at the same time, “I have no belief, and do not support the idea, that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States.”
Since proposing a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” in December 2015, Trump has taken a variety of different stances on the subject, most often saying he would restrict the ban to people arriving from countries affected by terrorism.
Sessions promised that despite his personal opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, he would respect rulings by the US supreme court protecting both.
The nomination of Sessions, who was denied a judgeship by the Senate in 1986 following claims of racial discrimination, has met a wave of opposition from civil rights campaigners. Sessions denied what he called “very painful” claims at the time that he condemned the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as “un-American” and described a white civil rights attorney as a race traitor.
A black prosecutor who worked for Sessions in the federal prosecutor’s office in southern Alabama testified that Sessions had called him “boy” and told him to be careful what he said to white people. On Tuesday Sessions said: “This caricature of me in 1986 was not correct.”
Cory Booker, a black Democrat from New Jersey, is due on Wednesday to become the first sitting senator to testify against another, as the confirmation hearings on Sessions continue into a second day. Several other of Trump’s nominees are due to begin their own hearings while Trump is also scheduled to give his first press conference since July.