Two men in white sheets and hoods stood on chairs in the Russell building caucus room seconds after Jeff Sessions entered the room for his confirmation hearing.
“Jefferson Beauregard, I’m here for you,” one called out in a fake Southern accent, using the attorney general nominee’s proper name. The heckler thanked the Alabamian “for being with us.”
Sessions smiled. Police descended on the men and dragged them from the room. “You can’t arrest me – I’m a white man,” one shouted. “Do I have to wait until the inauguration?”
The protests in the audience continued through the morning and into the afternoon. Some 15 hecklers, white, black and brown, were led out after calling the nominee a racist and a “fascist pig” and chanting “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!” One woman was led out by no fewer than four Capitol police officers for the offense of laughing when Sessions was praised for “treating all Americans equally.”
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But if the activists were expecting Sessions to live up to his reputation, they would have been disappointed. The man in the witness chair sounded more MLK than KKK.
What Sessions said at his confirmation hearing did not always align with what he had said and done in the past. It may not comport at all with what he will do as attorney general. But, at least for a day, Sessions took pains to present himself as inoffensive. He did perhaps more than he needed to, because the Republican majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee – a committee on which Sessions sits – gave every sign that they will confirm their colleague.
Sessions promised to recuse himself from decisions involving the Clinton emails and the Clinton Foundation. He said he would respect legal abortion and same-sex marriage, and he acknowledged that women and gay people are victims of hate crimes. Unlike his new boss, he said Muslims as a group could not be denied entry into the United States, and he didn’t dispute the intelligence community’s findings that Russia interfered in the election.
He said the administration would not seek to deport all immigrants here illegally. He opposed waterboarding. He pledged to enforce gun and environmental laws. He said the NAACP does “tremendous good.” He called the Voting Rights Act “one of the most important” laws, embraced “proper deference to the news media” by prosecutors and boasted about working with Ted Kennedy.
“The Department of Justice must never falter in its obligation to protect the civil rights of every American, particularly those who are most vulnerable,” Sessions said, promising to “ensure access to the ballot for every eligible voter.” The nominee said he would honor the “promise that our government is one of laws, not of men.”
Those assurances may amount to nothing. But for those who fear that Donald Trump will run roughshod across the federal government, the nominee’s testimony offered a slim hope that he will provide at least some brake on the new president’s worst instincts.
There are other small signs of encouragement: Several Republican senators have objected to their leadership’s pell-mell rush to repeal Obamacare without a replacement. After objections that Trump’s nominees are being rushed through without the required vetting, the GOP majority agreed to postpone hearings for four nominees.
Noteworthy, too, is the way Sessions and the Trump transition team decided to handle his confirmation hearing. Sessions didn’t mention Trump in his opening statement other than to thank him for the nomination. And even before senators questioned him about the allegations of racism that led the GOP-controlled Judiciary Committee to reject his nomination to the federal bench in 1986, Sessions pre-emptively defended himself against “damnably false charges.”
The guest seats were filled by the likes of Al Sharpton, Khizr Khan and members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, now the top Democrat on the panel, noted that “there is so much fear in this country … particularly in the African-American community.”
The senators, even Democrats, were almost all gentle in questioning their colleague, and Sessions actively avoided arguments. He opposed the Violence Against Women Act in 2013 but now says the law “has many powerful provisions that I’m glad (were) passed.”
Sessions said it was “very painful” to be identified as a racist. He said he saw “systematic and powerful” racism in the South. “I know we need to do better,” Sessions said. “We can never go back.”
Does he believe that? We’ll see. For now, it’s a small comfort that he felt the need to say it.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.