U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s candidate for attorney general said on Tuesday he was against banning Muslims from entering the country and would enforce a 2015 law that outlawed waterboarding terrorism suspects, even though he had opposed the law.
During the 2016 election campaign Trump said waterboarding, which simulates drowning and is widely regarded as torture, was an effective technique and vowed to bring it back and make it “a hell of a lot worse.”
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, a close ally of Trump’s and his nominee to be attorney general, told a Senate confirmation hearing that the law was “not the right step” and should not have applied to the “higher ups” in the military and intelligence community.
However with his remarks on enforcing the law, he indicated a willingness to resist the president-elect.
The hearing for Sessions, in line to be the country’s top prosecutor and legal adviser to the president, was the first in a series this week for nominees to Trump’s Cabinet ahead of the Jan. 20 inauguration. Protesters charging Sessions has a poor record on human rights interrupted the proceedings several times.
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 Senate.
President George W. Bush’s administration was strongly criticized at home and abroad when intelligence agencies used waterboarding. More recently Trump has said retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, his nominee for secretary of defense, had persuasively argued against it.
On another counterterrorism issue, 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 investigation.
“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, who defeated Clinton in the Nov. 8 election, 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 the law.”
Many questions on Tuesday aimed to establish how closely Sessions hewed to Trump positions.
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, who has represented the deeply conservative Southern state of Alabama for 20 years, has a long 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.
As head of the Justice Department, the attorney general 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.
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 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 false.
“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 enforcement post.
“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 added.
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.
He also said he opposed lowering mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and did not see voter identification laws as a barrier to voting, a reversal of two key stances of the Obama administration.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander, Sarah Lynch, Dustin Volz and Ian Simpson)