Trump’s Attorney General Nominee Defends Civil Rights Record


  • Ken Bredemeier/Michael Bowman/VOA News
    Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for attorney general, defended his civil rights record Tuesday, telling a congressional hearing that he understands the tortured history of voting rights for blacks in the United States.

    Sessions, the first of Trump’s Cabinet nominees facing a Senate confirmation hearing this week, assured Senate colleagues on the Judiciary Committee that he would lead «aggressive enforcement» of U.S. voting laws «without hindrance or discrimination, and to ensure the integrity of the electoral process.»

    «As a Southerner I saw discrimination,» Sessions said. «I know that was wrong. We needed to do better.»

    Several protesters in a Capitol Hill hearing room at times briefly shouted their opposition to Sessions’ appointment, with police struggling to drag them out.

    After pausing for one interruption, Sessions, a conservative, four-term senator, vowed to uphold laws protecting minorities and lesbians, gays and transgender people, even if he had at various times during 20 years as a lawmaker voted against legislation they supported.

    Sessions, a hardline opponent of illegal immigration into the United States, promised to «vigorously, effectively and immediately» prosecute people «who violate our border.»

    He deflected a question about what should happen to 800,000 young immigrants brought to the country by their parents illegally that President Barack Obama has protected from deportation for two years. Sessions, who has opposed comprehensive immigration reforms, said, «We need to fix this immigration system,» something Congress has been unable to do

    The 70-year-old Sessions was an early supporter of Trump, the first senator to endorse his presidential bid at a time when political Washington thought the billionaire real estate mogul turned politician had no chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination, let alone the presidency over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

    Sessions voiced complaints during the lengthy campaign about Clinton’s use of a private email server and handling of classified material while she was secretary of state. But he said that if he is confirmed as the country’s top law enforcement official he would remove himself from any involvement in discussions about possible prosecution of her in connection with the emails or the charitable Clinton Foundation her family controls.

    Abortion rights, same-sex marriage

    Sessions said he also considers Supreme Court decisions upholding abortion rights and same-sex marriages as settled law, rulings some U.S. conservatives hope to eventually overturn if Trump wins approval for conservative court appointments he could have the chance to make during his four-year term in the White House.

    A four-term senator, Sessions presented himself to his Senate colleagues as a man they could trust. But his appointment has drawn opposition from at least two Democratic senators and civil rights advocates concerned he would weaken legal protections for immigrants, minorities and gays.

    Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California voiced her skepticism about his nomination, asking in her opening statement, «Will he enforce the laws he voted against? Will he tell the president no when necessary?»

    Sessions said he would not hesitate to oppose Trump if the occasion arises on a policy issue where he thinks the president is wrong.

    The U.S. Senate will be ground zero this week for the first major battle for Trump: a rigorous and contentious confirmation process for eight of his Cabinet nominees and other top administration picks.

    Thirty years ago, the Senate rejected his nomination to be a federal judge because of allegations he had made racially insensitive remarks, a charge Sessions denied again Tuesday.

    Democratic opposition

    One Democrat, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, said he would testify against Sessions, the first time in Senate history a sitting senator has testified against a Senate colleague nominated for a Cabinet position. Booker said the «deeply troubling views of this nominee is a call to conscience.»

    Speaking to VOA, Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso said he hoped the confirmation process would be swift, like it was eight years ago.

    “When President Obama came into office [in 2009], he had his Cabinet, a core working group, confirmed the first day,” he said. “And I would hope that we have that same situation with President Trump when he takes office on January 20.”

    Democrats say numerous Trump nominees have been slow to complete paperwork and release ethics and financial information considered to be standard requirements for Cabinet picks and federal agency heads.

    Republicans insist no Trump nominee will be able to flout confirmation requirements, even if Democrats do not believe the information provided is sufficient.

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, downplayed Democrats’ concerns after meeting Monday with Trump in New York.

    “Everybody will be properly vetted as they have in the past, and I am hopeful it will get up to six or seven, particularly the national security team, on day one,” McConnell told reporters.

    Republicans control 52 seats in the 100-member Senate. Should they maintain party unity behind Trump’s nominees, they can all but assure the president-elect’s team will be confirmed. Democrats can delay votes, but are unable to block nominees on their own.

    More hearings scheduled

    In addition to Sessions, retired Marine General John Kelly, Trump’s pick as the homeland security chief, is facing a confirmation hearing Tuesday.

    On Wednesday, former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson, nominated as secretary of state, and Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife, who was named as the transportation chief, face their hearings.

    Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis, a retired Marine general, has his confirmation hearing Thursday, as do Congressman Mike Pompeo, picked as the Central Intelligence Agency director, business investor Wilbur Ross, named as commerce secretary, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, picked as the housing and urban development chief.