Sessions says he’d be fair as AG, defy Trump if necessary

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Jeff Sessions cast himself as a strong protector of law and order at his confirmation hearing Tuesday, promising that as attorney general he would crack down on illegal immigration, gun violence and the “scourge of radical Islamic terrorism.”

Sessions, echoing rhetoric used on the campaign trail by President-elect Donald Trump, warned of a country struggling to combat illegal drugs flooding across the border, spikes in violent crime in American cities and low morale among police.

“These trends cannot continue. It is a fundamental civil right to be safe in your home and your community,” the Alabama Republican said in laying out conservative priorities for the Justice Department at the opening of his Senate hearing.

Politics got its share of attention, too, with Sessions promising to recuse himself from any investigation there might be into Democrat Hillary Clinton, because of comments he’d made during the campaign. Trump said previously that he would name a special prosecutor to look into Clinton’s use of a private email server, but has since backed away. The FBI and Justice Department declined to bring charges last year.

Sessions has solid support from the Senate’s Republican majority, but faces a challenge persuading skeptical Democrats that he’ll be fair and committed to civil rights as the country’s top law enforcement official. Sen. Dianne Feinstein hinted at those concerns, saying “there is so much fear in this country” particularly among blacks.

Sessions, whose 1986 judicial nomination was derailed by allegations of racially charged comments, sought to confront that concern by saying he “understands the history of civil rights and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters. I have witnessed it.”

“The office of the attorney general of the United States is not a political position, and anyone who holds it must have total fidelity to the laws and the Constitution of the United States,” he said.

At several points, anti-Sessions protesters disrupted the hearing. They were quickly escorted out.

Sessions smiled amiably as he began his presentation, taking time to introduce his grandchildren, joking about Alabama football and making self-deprecating remarks about his strong Southern accent.

In a more serious vein, he was asked by committee chairman Chuck Grassley if he could stand up to Trump if he disagreed with the president-elect’s actions. Yes, he said, adding that he would be prepared to resign if asked to do something that was “plainly unlawful.”

Democrats were using part of the two days of hearings to challenge Sessions’ commitment to civil rights, a chief priority of the Justice Department during the Obama administration. They were also likely to press him on his hard-line stance on immigration policy.

But Republicans have expressed strong support and are expected to secure more than enough votes needed to confirm him, including from some Democrats in conservative-leaning states.

Sessions is known as one of the most staunchly conservative members of the Senate, and has already drawn opposition from at least two Democratic colleagues, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.