The Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings into Sen. Jeff Sessions' (R-Ala.) nomination for attorney general began this morning with the nominee being peppered with questions about topics including crime, abortion, porn, mandatory minimums, racism, and potential future investigations into Hillary Clinton.
The hearings, which expect to be contentious, began with the typical formal pleasantries and some broad strokes about policy. There were also a few interruptions from members of Code Pink and others dressed as Ku Klux Klan members before both were escorted from the room.
In his introduction, Committee Chairman Sen. Check Grassley (R-Iowa) lauded Sessions for his record of public service, but expressed concern over what he characterized as the Justice Department not enforcing existing immigration laws. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) testified on behalf of Sessions, praising his "integrity" and decrying accusations of racism leveled against him.
In Sessions' opening statement he cited recent FBI statistics showing an increase in violent crime from 2015 to 2016, but failed to note that the U.S. murder rate is at about where it was in 2008, just before Barack Obama took office, and still less than half of where it was in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Grassley asked Sessions about critical comments he made during the presidential campaign about Hillary Clinton and the FBI investigation into her use of a private email server. Sessions conceded that the statements he made while serving as a Donald Trump campaign surrogate put "my objectivity in question," and he promised to recuse himself from any prospective investigation into the Clinton or the Clinton Foundation if confirmed as attorney general.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) focused on Sessions' lack of support for hate crime legislation in her opening statement, and later asked Sessions about the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Act of 2015, and whether he would deny federal funds provided by the act to pay for abortions for victims of rape in sex trafficking. The staunchly pro-life Sessions assured Feinstein that his DOJ would defer to Congress, which passed this law. Feinstein reiterated that the funds in this law are not subject to the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds being used for abortion except to save the life of the mother.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) praised Sessions' introduction of a resolution demanding federal obscenity laws be "vigorously enforced throughout the United States." Hatch also cited the Utah legislature's resolution declaring pornography as a "public health problem," and asked if Sessions' still believes anti-obscenity laws should be "vigorously enhanced." Sessions said he would consider reconstituting a special Justice Department unit to prosecute obscenity laws.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) grilled Sessions about his vote against a resolution which opposed the U.S. barring anyone from entering the country based on their religion, something Trump had proposed with regards to Muslims during the campaign. Leahy asked the nominee if he agreed with President-elect Trump's stated position, but Sessions pivoted, saying that Trump has since indicated his focus would be on "strong vetting" of people wishing to enter the U.S. from "countries that have a history of terrorism." Sessions also clarified that while he opposes blanket bans on certain religions, he says he voted against the bill because, in his view, certain religious views should be fair game in the vetting process.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Sessions point blank how he feels about being painted as a racist by some prior to the hearings, to which Sessions replied it was "very painful," and that as a Southerner he has witnessed discrimination "in a systematic way" and "we can never go back" to those ways.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) focused on criminal justice reform and mandatory minimum sentencing. Durbin credited Sessions for breaking with members of his party and supporting the reduction in sentencing disparity for crack and cocaine convictions (although Sessions mistakenly asserted that the crack sentencing reforms were made retroactive — they were not).
Durbin then referred to Alton Mills — a low-level drug dealer who spent 22 years in prison because of "three strikes" laws before his sentence was commuted by President Obama in 2015 — who attended the hearing and was asked by Durbin to stand and be noted by the committee. Then the Illinois senator asked Sessions why he still opposes the kind of sentencing reform that would prevent people like Mills from receiving life sentences. Sessions replied that as attorney general, he would follow the laws passed by Congress regarding mandatory minimums, but was deliberately vague about why he opposed reforming those laws as a senator.
The attorney general confirmation hearings will continue through at least Tuesday, when Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is scheduled to appear in opposition to Sessions' nomination, breaking with a long-standing tradition of senators not testifying against each other in confirmation hearings.