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5 Takeaways From Jeff Sessions' Attorney General Hearing, So Far

Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama is sworn in Monday for his confirmation hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama is sworn in Monday for his confirmation hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

At more than eight hours long, the first day of Jeff Sessions' confirmation hearing for attorney general was a marathon. The Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Sessions on a wide range of topics, including allegations of racism that have dogged the Alabama senator for years and his views on immigration as well as the government's use of torture.

Democrats don't have the votes to stop Sessions' appointment. Perhaps as a result, they focused primarily on fleshing out what Sessions' relationship would be with the president as attorney general and reminded him of the importance of an independent Justice Department. Sessions spent a lot of the day reassuring his colleagues that he would follow the law, first and foremost, and expressing his disagreements with some of the president-elect's more extreme proposals.

The attorney general, Sessions said, "must be willing to tell the president or other top officials no if he or they overreach" and "cannot be a mere rubber stamp."

Here are five takeaways from Day 1 of the attorney general hearings. The Senate Judiciary Committee will reconvene Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. ET.

1. Defending his record on race

Sessions has been viewed as a controversial choice for the country's top legal adviser. In 1986, a Republican-controlled Senate rejected his nomination to a federal judgeship because he had made racially insensitive remarks and called prominent civil rights groups "un-American," as NPR's Nina Totenberg reported. Sessions, a harsh critic of marijuana use, also infamously joked that he was OK with the Ku Klux Klan until he found out that they smoked pot.

Protesters have doubted whether Sessions has changed his ways enough to serve as attorney general. The question of whether Sessions will protect all citizens under the law was central to his hearing, and Sessions found himself repeatedly defending the remarks he made more than 30 years ago.

"I did not harbor the kind of animosities and race-based discrimination ideas I was accused of. I did not," Sessions said emphatically, insisting that his earlier remarks about the NAACP in particular were taken out of context. "There was an organized effort to caricature me as something that wasn't true," Sessions added. "I didn't know how to respond and didn't respond very well."

He also noted that he hoped this hearing would show that he was the same person as he was then, but "perhaps wiser."

2. Recuse from Clinton investigations

Sessions insisted that as attorney general, he would recuse himself from any investigations involving Hillary Clinton. Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa asked Sessions how he would address concerns that he could not be impartial regarding any investigations of Clinton, based on comments the Alabama senator made about the integrity of the FBI investigation into Clinton's private email server.

"With regard to Secretary Clinton and some of the comments I made, I do believe that could place my objectivity in question," Sessions responded. "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 that were raised during the campaign."

Later in the hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse asked Sessions if he ever chanted "lock her up," a popular Trump rally slogan that referred to Hillary Clinton. "No I did not. I don't think. I heard it," Sessions replied, and emphasized again that he did not think he should make decisions regarding any Clinton investigations.

During a presidential debate, Trump said that he would hire a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton, though he has since expressed less enthusiasm for the idea. Sessions did not completely rule it out.

"I don't think it's appropriate for the attorney general just to willy-nilly create special prosecutors," Sessions said. "But there are times when objectivity is required and the absolute appearance of objectivity is required and perhaps a special prosecutor is appropriate."

3. Condemning waterboarding

Sessions broke with Trump on waterboarding, not necessarily because he condemns the practice itself but because the extreme interrogation technique, he said, is now illegal.

Sessions voted against an amendment in 2015 that would have allowed the FBI and CIA to use only interrogation techniques approved in the Army Field Manual, which bans waterboarding, according to Politico. He has said the practice works in extracting information, according to The New York Times.

But, as Sessions emphasized several times throughout the day, he plans to leave his personal views at the door if appointed. "The ultimate responsibility of the attorney general and the Department of Justice is to execute the laws passed by this Congress and to follow the Constitution in that process," Sessions said.

He added that Congress has made it "absolutely improper and illegal to use waterboarding or any other form of torture in the United States by our military and by all our other departments and agencies."

Trump, on the other hand, has said he has different plans. "I would bring back waterboarding, and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding," the president-elect said in a February debate, as NPR reported at the time.

4. No to a Muslim ban and registry

When Sen. Patrick Leahy asked Sessions if he agreed with Trump that people of a certain religion should be barred from entering the United States, Sessions first corrected the Vermont Democrat.

"I believe the president-elect has, subsequent to that statement, made clear that he believes the focus should be on individuals coming from countries that have a history of terrorism," Sessions said. That's true: Trump did back off his initial proposal to ban Muslims, and it's a stance Sessions has supported.

But when Trump initially called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, Congress voted on a resolution in response to Trump. The resolution stated that the United States must not ban individuals based on religion and Sessions voted against it.

"In the resolution, it was suggesting that you could not seriously consider a person's religious views," Sessions explained at his hearing. "Many people do have religious views that are inimical to the public safety of the United States."

Sessions said religion should be a factor when vetting an incoming person, but not the only factor. "I have no belief, and do not support, the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States," Sessions said, emphasizing that Americans are "great believers in religious freedom."

He also said that if someone indicated that it was their religion that made them want to inflict harm, then they should not be allowed entry into the United States. Later in the day, Sessions indicated he would protect the rights of Muslims living in the United States.

"I would not favor a registry of Muslims in the United States. No I would not," Sessions said. "And I think we should avoid surveillance of religious institutions unless there's a basis to believe that dangerous or threatening illegal activity could be carried on there."

5. "No Trump. No KKK. No Fascist USA."

Protesters interrupted the proceeding several times throughout the day. One of the first protesters was wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume and shouted, "We need to listen to Black Lives Matter." Later in the hearing, other protesters interrupted at different moments and several chanted, "No Trump. No KKK. No Fascist USA."

After one interruption by protesters of an exchange between Sessions and Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator joked to Sessions: "If nothing else, I'm clearing the room for ya."

According to NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, protesters at confirmation hearings are not unusual, but the volume at Sessions' hearing seemed higher than normal. That could also be because he's the first of Trump's nominees to have a hearing.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Protesters wearing white sheets shout at Sen. Jeff Sessions as he arrives at the Russell Senate Office Building on Monday for his confirmation hearing.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
Protesters wearing white sheets shout at Sen. Jeff Sessions as he arrives at the Russell Senate Office Building on Monday for his confirmation hearing.

Meg Anderson is an editor on NPR's Investigations team, where she shapes the team's groundbreaking work for radio, digital and social platforms. She served as a producer on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She also does her own original reporting for the team, including the series Heat and Health in American Cities, which won multiple awards, and the story of a COVID-19 outbreak in a Black community and the systemic factors at play. She also completed a fellowship as a local reporter for WAMU, the public radio station for Washington, D.C. Before joining the Investigations team, she worked on NPR's politics desk, education desk and on Morning Edition. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.