During Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee, Alabama Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III vehemently denied what he called “damnably false” accusations of a racist professional and personal background.
Though he trumpeted a heavily conservative outlook for the Justice Department – pledging to crack down on illegal immigration, gun violence and the “scourge of radical Islamic terrorism” – Sessions assured that he would remain independent of both the White House and Trump’s influence.
He even vowed to resign should Trump ever ask him to do anything “unlawful or unconstitutional,” The Canadian Press reported.
To prove this, he mentioned that despite his criticism of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the campaign, he would recuse himself from any investigations into her life.
Still, Sessions, who has enthusiastically backed Trump's proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border, also promised to prosecute illegal immigrants who repeatedly enter the country and questioned President Obama's administration decision to shield immigrants from deportation. According to media reports, Sessions has actually been one of the key architects of Trump’s immigration, counter-terrorism and trade policies.
Careful not to echo Trump’s comments too closely, however, he assured that he did “not support the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States.” Trump, on the other hand, has come out in support of a complete ban. Only recently has he changed his tune to propose “extreme vetting” instead.
Then, to keep the illusion of independent thinking going, Sessions denounced the banned practice of waterboarding – which Trump repeatedly has expressed favor for – as “absolutely improper and illegal.”
Though Sessions has solid support from the Senate’s Republican majority and even some right-leaning Democrats, he was dogged by past accusations of racist remarks made during his time as a federal prosecutor.
Indeed, a day before, the NAACP Legal and Education fund released a damning 32-page report digging into the professional life of Sessions to demonstrate, with documented evidence, a racist and bigoted past.
“That record, particularly given his public life in a state with a long and troubled history of racial discrimination, should reveal a clear commitment to the principles of racial equality and justice and support for the civil rights laws which, as Attorney General, he would be charged with upholding,” read part of the report, which was to be presented during the hearing.
“Rather than demonstrate his fitness to become the chief enforcer of our nation’s civil rights laws, Sessions’ record reveals precisely the opposite.”
Part of that record includes an incident in 1986 when Sessions was accused of making racist comments while serving as a U.S. attorney in Alabama, including calling a Black assistant U.S. attorney “boy” and referring to the NAACP as “un-American” and “communist-inspired.”
For his part, Sessions denied the allegations, including that he had ever called the NAACP “un-American.”
“It wasn’t accurate then,” he said. “It isn’t accurate now.”
But even skeptical Democrats dubious of his record regarding civil rights grilled him about his ability to uphold and enforce laws with which he, as a staunch conservative, may disagree.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked whether he could be trusted to enforce the laws he has voted against, including expanded hate crime protections. Sessions answered in the affirmative, pointing to a ruling in favor of abortion which he disagreed with but nevertheless accepted it.
On Wednesday, in a rather unprecedented turn of events, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey – one of only three Black senators – will testify against Sessions.
Booker will specifically discuss what he, in a statement, described as Sessions’ “concerning” record on civil rights and criminal justice reform.