The Senate confirmation hearings for Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, were forecast to be brutal, and in many ways the first four hours of questioning Sessions faced on Tuesday lived up to the expectations.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Sessions is a member, grilled their colleague about his views on abortion, immigration, criminal justice reform, LGBT issues, his questionable record on civil rights, and several other tough topics.
Three decades ago, the civil rights issue derailed Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship, with the same Senate Judiciary Committee ultimately rejecting him for the job. Today, Sessions proved that much has changed since then.
“I never declared that the NAACP was ‘un-American’ or that a civil rights attorney was a ‘disgrace to his race,’” Sessions said in his opening statement, forcefully denying the allegations he faced in 1986.
The staunchly conservative Republican proceeded to repeatedly dodge and deflect difficult questions about his beliefs, deftly avoiding any potentially damaging moments. When pressed about sensitive subjects, Sessions frequently said it would be up to Congress to decide the laws he would enforce as attorney general.
Asked whether he would work to protect LGBT people from hate crimes, Sessions, who voted against extending hate crime laws to cover gays and lesbians, said simply, “The law has been passed, Congress has spoken. You can be sure I’ll enforce it.”
Sessions took a similar tack with questions about abortion. He defended calling Roe v. Wade unconstitutional, but said in the same breath, “It is the law of the land, and it deserves respect.”
Asked what will happen to nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who have enrolled in President Obama’s DACA program after Trump does away with it, Sessions, who has repeatedly blocked any immigration reforms that involve a path to citizenship, said it will be up to Congress to fix the immigration system.
When confronted with facts, Sessions often resorted to some variation of, “I haven’t studied that closely,” and let the questioner move on to the next topic. He also responded with disarming bluntness to some queries, saying he does not “support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States,” and that the law “absolutely” does not allow waterboarding. (Trump’s transition website still lists a Muslim ban as being in his plans; Sessions also voted against efforts to end the use of torture.)
In a session that was frequently interrupted by protesters, Sessions seemed unflappable. While the demonstrators shouted and were escorted from the room, Sessions calmly paused, smiled, and took sips of water. The only moment he appeared to lose his cool came when Sen. Al Franken vigorously questioned whether Sessions actually handled several voting rights cases when he was a federal prosecutor in Alabama. Sessions disputed the allegations, made by attorneys who worked under him, and avoided a “gotcha” moment.
The hearings are still ongoing, and Sessions will return on Wednesday to face another round of questioning. So far, nobody has asked him about his views on marijuana (he said last year that “good people” don’t smoke it) or immigrant sanctuary cities, which Trump has vowed target for not cooperating with federal authorities on immigration enforcement.
UPDATE: Tuesday, Jan. 10, 3:36 p.m. ET
Shortly after the hearing resumed in the afternoon, two senators asked Sessions about his views on marijuana legalization. Once again, Sessions had skillful responses.
Sen. Patrick Leahy asked Sessions, “Would you use our federal resources to investigate and prosecute sick people who are using marijuana in accordance with their state laws, even though it might violate federal law?”
Sessions replied, “I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law, Sen. Leahy, but absolutely it’s a problem of resources for the federal government.” A few moments later, he added, “Using good judgment of handling these cases will be a responsibility of mine. I will do my job in a fair and just way.”
When Leahy noted that Sessions previously said he supports the death penalty for repeat drug offenders, including people convicted on marijuana-related charges, Sessions responded, “I’m not sure under what circumstances I said that, but I don’t think that sounds like something I would normally say.” He then added, “It is not my view today.”
Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, then followed up with a long-winded question about the three branches of government as they relate to marijuana laws. Sessions responded, “One obvious concern is that the United States Congress made the possession of marijuana in every state and distribution of it an illegal act, so if we need to — if that’s something that is not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change that rule.”
Nobody asked Sessions about his comment that “good people” don’t smoke marijuana.
You can watch the rest of the hearing live on C-Span.