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WASHINGTON Donald Trump’s candidate for attorney
general on Tuesday said he opposed banning Muslims from entering
the United States and, taking a tougher stance than the
president-elect, said waterboarding is torture and illegal.
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, the nominee, responded to
questions at a Senate confirmation hearing, the first in a
series this week for nominees to serve in the Cabinet once Trump
enters the White House on Jan. 20.
Protesters charging Sessions has a poor record on human
rights interrupted the proceedings several times.
During the 2016 election campaign Trump said waterboarding
was an effective interrogation technique and vowed to bring it
back and “a hell of a lot worse.”
President George W. Bush’s administration came under fire
when intelligence agencies used the method which simulates the
sensation of drowning. More recently Trump has said retired
Marine Corps General James Mattis, his nominee for secretary of
defense, had persuasively argued against it.
Asked if waterboarding constituted torture, Sessions said
Congress has since passed legislation that makes it “absolutely
improper and illegal to use waterboarding or any other form of
His stance that the law clearly bans waterboarding could
pose a problem for Trump if he tries to reinstate the practice.
Sessions said he would not support banning anyone from the
United States on the basis of religion, and said Trump’s
intentions were to block people coming from countries harboring
terrorists, not all Muslims. During his campaign, Trump at one
point proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.
Sessions also said he would recuse himself from
investigating Hillary Clinton’s email practices and charitable
foundation if confirmed as attorney general and he would favor
the appointment of a special prosecutor for any such
“I have said a few things,” Sessions said about his comments
during the presidential race accusing former Democratic
presidential candidate Clinton of illegal activity. “I think
that is one of the reasons why I should not make a decision in
that case.” Trump defeated Clinton in the Nov. 8 election.
The gathering was contentious as senators pushed Sessions on
his and Trump’s positions on issues such as civil rights and
Sessions was asked how he would handle the issue of former
candidate Clinton. Trump said during the campaign that if
elected he would ask his attorney general to appoint a special
prosecutor to see that Clinton go to prison for her use of a
private email server while she was secretary of state and her
relationship with her family’s charitable foundation.
“We can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal
dispute,” Sessions said. “This country does not punish its
political enemies but this country ensures that no one is above
He said later that he would favor the appointment of a
special prosecutor for any investigation into Clinton.
Sessions, 70, became the first sitting senator to endorse
Trump for the presidency in early 2016 and has remained an
adviser on issues such as immigration. He is being reviewed by
the Senate Judiciary Committee, a panel on which he serves, and
is widely expected to be confirmed by the Republican-controlled
Many questions aimed to establish how closely he hewed to
some of the positions of Trump.
Sessions said he agreed with Trump in opposing Democratic
President Barack Obama’s executive action that granted temporary
protection to immigrant children brought to the country
illegally by their parents and would not oppose overturning it.
Sessions also said he agreed with his many of his fellow
Republicans that the military prison for foreign terrorism
suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba remain open. The Obama
administration has sought to close the prison, opened by former
President George W. Bush in 2002, and bring its prisoners to
U.S. civilian courts to be tried.
DEFENSE AGAINST RACISM
Sessions several times defended himself against charges of
racism. He said allegations that he harbored sympathies toward
the Ku Klux Klan, a violent white supremacist organization, are
“I abhor the Klan and what it represents and its hateful
ideology,” Sessions said in his opening remarks.
“End racism Stop Sessions,” and “End hate Stop Sessions,”
read some of the signs carried by protesters.
Sessions was denied confirmation to a federal judgeship in
1986 after allegations emerged that he made racist remarks,
including testimony that he called an African-American
prosecutor “boy,” an allegation Sessions denied.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said the Senate
Judiciary Committee had received letters from 400 civil rights
organizations opposing his confirmation to the country’s top law
“This job requires service to the people and the law, not
the president,” Feinstein said.
“There is a deep fear about what a Trump administration will
bring in many places. And this is the context in which we must
consider Senator Sessions’ record and nomination,” Feinstein
Sessions has opposed abortion and same-sex marriage as a
senator, but said on Tuesday that if confirmed as attorney
general he would follow the Supreme Court rulings that legalized
both abortion and same-sex marriage.
AMERICA’S TOP PROSECUTOR
The attorney general is the country’s top prosecutor and
legal adviser to the president. As head of the Justice
Department, the attorney general also oversees the immigration
court system that decides whether immigrants are deported or
granted asylum or some other kind of protection.
A key plank of Trump’s election campaign was his pledge to
deport illegal immigrants and to build a wall along the U.S.
border with Mexico.
In 2015, Republicans held up the nomination of Loretta
Lynch, the current attorney general, for 166 days, longer than
any nominee in 30 years, over her support for Obama’s executive
actions on immigration.
Sessions, who has represented the deeply conservative
Southern state of Alabama for 20 years, has a long, consistent
record of opposing legislation that provides a path to
citizenship for immigrants. He has also been a close ally of
groups seeking to restrict legal immigration by placing limits
on visas used by companies to hire foreign workers.
On Monday, a group of civil liberties and internet freedom
groups sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee
describing Sessions as a “leading proponent of expanding the
government’s surveillance authority of ordinary Americans.”
Asked by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch what he would do to
protect digital privacy, Sessions said he did “not have firm and
fast opinions on the subject.”
Sessions said he had not been briefed by the Federal Bureau
of Investigation on its conclusion that Russia interfered in the
U.S. election campaign to try to tilt the election in Trump’s
favor, including by hacking into Democratic Party email systems,
but he trusted the conclusion was “honorably reached.”
For weeks, Trump questioned the U.S. intelligence services’
charge that Russia was behind the hacks, although last week he
said he accepted this conclusion.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander, Sarah Lynch, Dustin
Volz and Ian Simpson)
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