Trump’s Cabinet confirmation hearings begin with Jeff Sessions, John Kelly
January 10, 2017 5:10 PM
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“I do not support the idea that Muslims should be denied entry to the United States," Jeff Sessions said Tuesday.
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A protester shouts, "No Trump, No KKK, No facist USA" as he is hauled out of the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearing for Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Al Drago/The New York Times
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., testifies Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.
Protesters dressed as Klansmen disrupt the start of a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Jeff Sessions. As security took them out of the room, they yelled, “you can’t arrest me, I am white!” and “white people own this government!”
Protesters take positions at the start of a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Jeff Sessions on Capitol Hill.
Alex Brandon/Associated Press
A protester is escorted away by Capitol Hill Police officers.
/ Associated Press
Under the U.S. Constitution, the Senate has sole authority to confirm a president’s nominee to serve in the Cabinet. And while President-elect Donald Trump can’t officially nominate anyone until he becomes president Jan. 20, the Senate is getting an early start this week on his choices for several top jobs in his administration.
The action began Tuesday with Mr. Trump’s pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, a longtime senator from Alabama, and retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, named by Mr. Trump to head the Department of Homeland Security.
At the same time, Republican fast-paced plans to confirm Mr. Trump’s Cabinet nominees were upended Tuesday amid Democratic pressure to slow the schedule as a federal ethics watchdog reviewing nominees’ backgrounds warned that it could take months to probe some of the wealthier picks.
The lead-off confirmation hearing was Mr. Sessions, who fervently rejected “damnably false” accusations of past racist comments as he challenged Democratic concerns about the civil rights commitment he would bring as Mr. Trump’s attorney general. He vowed at his confirmation hearing to stay independent from the White House and stand up to Mr. Trump when necessary.
Mr. Sessions laid out a sharply conservative vision for the Justice Department he would oversee, pledging to crack down on illegal immigration, gun violence and the “scourge of radical Islamic terrorism” and to keep open the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
But he also distanced himself from some of Mr. Trump’s public pronouncements.
He said waterboarding, a now-banned harsh interrogation technique that Mr. Trump has at times expressed support for, was “absolutely improper and illegal.”
Though he said he would prosecute immigrants who repeatedly enter the country illegally and criticized as constitutionally “questionable” an executive action by President Barack Obama that shielded certain immigrants from deportation, he said he did “not support the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States.”
Mr. Trump earlier in his campaign called for a temporary total ban on Muslims entering his country but has more recently proposed “extreme vetting.”
Mr. Sessions asserted that he could confront Mr. Trump if needed, saying an attorney general must be prepared to resign if asked to do something “unlawful or unconstitutional.”
Nothing new came out of the hearing that was seen as likely to threaten Mr. Sessions’ confirmation by the Republican Senate.
Yet as he outlined his priorities, his past — including a 1986 judicial nomination that failed amid allegations that he’d made racially charged comments — hovered over the proceedings. Protesters calling Mr. Sessions a racist repeatedly interrupted and were hustled out by Capitol police.
Mr. Sessions vigorously denied that he had ever called the NAACP “un-American.” He said he had never harbored racial animus, calling the allegations — which included that he had referred to a black attorney in his office as “boy” — part of a false caricature.
“It wasn’t accurate then,” Mr. Sessions said. “It isn’t accurate now.”
He said 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.”
“I know we need to do better. We can never go back,” Mr. Sessions said. “I am totally committed to maintaining the freedom and equality that this country has to provide to every citizen.”
Politics got its share of attention, too, with Mr. Sessions promising to recuse himself from any investigation there might be into Democrat Hillary Clinton, whom he had criticized during the presidential campaign.
Mr. Trump said during the campaign he would name a special prosecutor to look into Ms. Clinton’s use of a private email server, but he has since backed away. The FBI and Justice Department declined to bring charges last year.
In perhaps the most awkward part of the hearing, Mr. Sessions, who’d initially dismissed the seriousness of Mr. Trump’s videotaped comments about grabbing women’s genitals, was forced into acknowledging that the behavior described by the president-elect amounted to sexual assault. He later suggested that a sitting president could be prosecuted for doing so “if appropriate.”
Mr. Trump’s pick for Homeland Security secretary isn’t controversial, unlike the issues he’ll potentially face in office.
Mr. Kelly is well-regarded by Democrats and Republicans alike and his confirmation is almost assured. He joined the Marines in 1970, served three tours in Iraq and is the former head of U.S. Southern Command, which works closely with Homeland Security on issues that include drug smuggling and illegal immigration. His son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in Afghanistan.
As Homeland Security secretary, Mr. Kelly would have a key role in advancing Mr. Trump’s agenda on immigration and border security, including the president-elect’s promise to build a wall on the Mexican border and to deport millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
Mr. Kelly told lawmakers that preventing the “illegal movement of people and things” would be his top priority if confirmed.
Republicans and Democrats came away from a confirmation hearing Tuesday singing Mr. Kelly’s praises.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said she was comforted and confident he will be a moderating influence on Mr. Trump.
Mr. Kelly would be the fifth person to lead the Department of Homeland Security, which includes agencies that protect the president, respond to disasters, enforce immigration laws, protect the nation’s coastlines, fight drug smuggling and secure air travel.
Most, if not all, of Mr. Trump’s picks are expected to win confirmation. While Republicans only hold a 52-48 advantage in the Senate, Democrats changed the Senate’s filibuster rules in 2013. That means Mr. Trump’s choice can win confirmation on a simple majority vote along party lines.
Still, Democrats are pressing for more information about several of the nominees who are some of the wealthiest people in America. Said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.: “So many of them are billionaires and corporate titans with complex financing holdings that raise the possibility of conflicts of interest, which requires careful scrutiny.”
The independent Office of Government Ethics, responsible for ensuring that nominees avoid any conflicts of interest, told the Senate late last week that in some cases it hadn’t received even draft financial disclosure reports for nominees slated to appear before the Senate this week.
The confirmation hearings for education secretary Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire, and Andrew Puzder, a fast-food executive and choice for labor secretary, were both postponed Tuesday.
Today, hearings will be held for Mr. Trump’s picks for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and transportation secretary, Elaine Chao. Also, a second day of hearings is planned for Mr. Sessions.
On Thursday, hearings are scheduled for Mike Pompeo for CIA director, James Mattis for defense secretary, Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary and Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development secretary.
Mr. Mattis retired in 2013 as a Marine Corps general. Because he has been out of uniform for fewer than seven years, the minimum required by law for a former service member to serve as defense secretary, his nomination will require new legislation to override the prohibition. Congress is expected to approve such a waiver law.
The Washington Post and McClatchy Newspapers contributed.