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Senate questions Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions on civil rights record

On the first day of confirmation hearings, the Alabama senator faced questions about his history with statements and positions that critics have called racist.

Molly Riley // AP/Getty

Trump Administration Watch entered its next phase Tuesday (January 10) as confirmation hearings commenced for Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump's nominee for Attorney General. Sessions is expected to receive the 50 votes necessary to become the nation's top prosecutor, but his hearings are likely to be the most contentious. This is in part because of the outsized impact Attorneys General have on national policy, and in part because of Jeff Sessions's murky alleged history with statements and positions that critics have called racist.

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These allegations coalesced 30 years ago during hearings for Sessions's failed nomination for a seat as a federal judge. Sessions had reportedly called the NAACP "un-American," and had allegedly called a white lawyer who represented African-Americans a "disgrace to his race." In 1986, Sessions seemed to acknowledge that he may have made both statements; on Tuesday, he outright denied ever having made them.

Throughout the day, liberal protestors interrupted the hearings, some dressed satirically as KKK members, calling attention to Sessions's positions on the civil rights-born Voting Rights Act of 1965 (which he has recently called "intrusive") and his reported history of blocking black judges in his home state.

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Sessions defended himself against the overarching air of racism by saying it was an unfair "caricature," pointing to his history of prosecuting KKK members and his votes on civil rights measures, and repeatedly saying to his Senate colleagues, "You know me."

This they do, and they will vote for Sessions in sufficient measure. And yet, one of his senatorial colleagues will pull an unprecedented act of defiance on day two of Sessions's confirmation hearing: New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker will testify against Sessions tomorrow, to call attention to the nominee's past with racially sensitive postures. "The Senate historian had been unable to find any previous instance of a sitting senator testifying against a fellow sitting senator nominated for a Cabinet position," says NBC News. (Also testifying Wednesday will be civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis, as well as sitting NAACP president Cornell William Brooks.

Over the course of the hearings, Sessions also was pressed on whether he would prosecute the law to the letter, both if he happened to disagree with it, or if it implicated President-elect Trump. This took on particular resonance as the day drew on and reports filtered in about CNN and Buzzfeed's report that Russia held compromising information over Trump, and the intelligence community's renewed investigation on Trump's possibly criminal activities. (Also, when asked if "grabbing them by the p**y"" was criminal assault, Sessions said yes. Look for more of this through the week, as Trump's appointees are forced to apologize for Trump's past statements.)

Further, when asked if he would a case like Roe v. Wade (establishing abortion rights), the Senator made clear he felt it was an unconstitutional decision, but that it was settled law and he would honor it. Sessions stated he is opposed to a religious test for immigration (i.e. he is opposed to the Muslim ban), and is opposed to torture methods like waterboarding.

As you can see, Sessions appointment has far reaching implications.

These hearing kick off a busy week in the political world: Tuesday night, President Obama delivered his farewell address. Wednesday, Trump holds his first press conference since last summer, while his Secretary of State nominee (and ExxonMobil CEO) Rex Tillerson sits for his confirmation hearings on the same day. On Thursday, Ben Carson's confirmation hearings to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development commence.

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These confirmation hearings matter because Trump reportedly plans to give his secretaries a "longer leash" to run their departments than did Obama, who reportedly had a tighter managerial style. In other words, these are the people who will shape policy in this country, and they're interviewing for their jobs this week. Stay in tune.

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