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Senate Confirmation Hearings: Day One

Proceedings for Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, and retired General John Kelly, Trump’s nominee for secretary of homeland security, will begin Tuesday.

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions Molly Riley / AP

President-elect Donald Trump’s choices to serve in his Cabinet need Senate confirmation.

Hearings will kick off on Tuesday. The week’s proceedings will include some of the most important Cabinet posts: Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, and Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state. Sessions is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hear from Tillerson on Wednesday.

Republicans have faced criticism from Democrats for scheduling hearings before the vetting process for the nominees is complete. On Monday night, the Senate postponed the confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for secretary of education. She had not yet signed a certified ethics agreement.

We’ll bring you the latest updates from Capitol Hill as events unfold. Also see our continuing coverage:


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The Legacy of Senator Sessions's 1986 Confirmation Hearing

Associated Press

In the third round of questioning today, Democrats in the Senate Judiciary Committee have zeroed in on Jeff Sessions’s civil-rights record and his 1986 Senate confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship, one in which he was dogged by allegations of racism. As my colleague Adam Serwer wrote in November:

In his 1986 confirmation hearing, witnesses testified that Sessions referred to a black attorney as “boy,” described the Voting Rights Act as “intrusive,” attacked the NAACP and ACLU as “un-American” for “forcing civil rights down the throats of people,” joked that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was ok until he found out they smoked marijuana, and referred to a white attorney who took on voting-rights cases as a  “traitor to his race.” As Ryan J. Reilly reported, Sessions also faced allegations that he referred to a Democratic official in Alabama as a nigger.

On Tuesday, Senators Chris Coons and Richard Blumenthal prodded him on his views on voting rights and his statements in the earlier hearing that the Voting Rights Act was “intrusive.” “As I said in the hearing in 1986, I was asked about it being ‘intrusive,’” Sessions responded, but  “I say then and I say now: It was necessary that the act be intrusive.” According to his defense of his statements at the 1986 hearing, Sessions was merely detailing the necessary structure of a law that was designed to intervene in such a virulently and openly racist society as the South in the civil-rights era.

There is more material, however, emerging from that decades-old hearing that could be damaging to Sessions’s claim to being a champion of civil rights. Coretta Scott King offered testimony against him at the time, via a letter that was never actually submitted to the congressional record by then-Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond. That missive was apparently a key part of the successful campaign to derail Sessions’s nomination, though its contents were never fully revealed.

As Tuesday’s hearing proceeded on the Hill, The Washington Post released the full text of the letter to the public for the first time. King closes with a rather strong condemnation of Sessions’s civil-rights record:

I do not believe Jefferson Sessions possesses the requisite judgment, competence and sensitivity to the rights guaranteed by the federal civil rights laws to qualify for appointment to the federal district court. Based on his record, I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama, but also on the progress we have made everywhere toward fulfilling my husband’s dream that he envisioned over twenty years ago. I therefore urge the Senate Judiciary Committee to deny his confirmation.

Another Confirmation Hearing Is Delayed

Mike Segar / Reuters

The confirmation hearing for Donald Trump’s commerce-secretary nominee won’t happen until next week, the committee helming the proceedings announced Tuesday evening.

Senators were scheduled to question nominee Wilbur Ross, the billionaire founder of a private-equity firm, on Thursday. But according to a statement from top lawmakers on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, he hasn’t completed all of the necessary paperwork. The hearing is now slated for January 18.

The committee’s “general practice ... has been to require complete applications on candidates for Senate confirmation before holding a hearing,” the statement reads. “While Mr. Ross has submitted his responses to the committee’s questionnaire, we have not yet received the ethics agreement he is working on with the Office of Government Ethics and the Department of Commerce to finalize.”

Ross isn’t the only lawmaker whose hearing has been pushed back because of missing documents—the absence of which has generated accusations from congressional Democrats that multiple hearings were scheduled prematurely. As my colleague Russell Berman has reported, the session for Andrew Puzder, Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, may not happen until February. And the hearing for education-secretary nominee Betsy DeVos was rescheduled for next week. Both their ethics agreements are similarly missing.

Sessions Foreshadows an End to Aggressive Federal Oversight of Police

Alex Brandon / AP

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions indicated that as attorney general, he would move away from the aggressive oversight of police departments that had become a hallmark of the Obama-era Justice Department during his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday. Sessions testified that federal lawsuits against local law enforcement “undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness.”

Under the Obama administration, the civil-rights division of the Justice Department has opened up a number of “pattern or practice” investigations of local police departments, determining that those departments had engaged in unconstitutional policing and compelling them to enter legal agreements where those problems could be addressed. Those investigations can end in “consent decrees,” under which police make an agreement with the feds to remedy their practices.

Federal investigations of police departments produced a number of remarkable documents testifying to the racial discrimination that people of color continue to face in the United States. Those investigations included one in Ferguson, Missouri that uncovered a system of discrimination and municipal plunder that forced mountains of fines on residents unable to pay them, one in Baltimore, Maryland that revealed a pattern of excessive force by police against black residents, and a settlement in Maricopa County, Arizona in which the Sheriff’s Department agreed to cease discriminating against Latino residents.

Those investigations are valuable not just for the legal agreements they produce––they also create a historical record of modern-day discrimination, in an era when many Americans believe such problems to be a thing of the past.

Asked by Hawaii Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono if Sessions would commit to maintaining the consent decrees achieved under the Obama administration, Sessions gave a non-committal answer, saying “those decrees remain in force until and if they are changed.”

Pressed by Hirono, Sessions said that he believed that “filing a lawsuit against a police department has ramifications, sometimes beyond what a lot of people think, and it can impact morale of the officers, it can impact and affect the view of citizens to their police department and I just think that caution is always required in these cases.”

Sessions added that he believed that police departments “often feel forced to agree to a consent decree just to remove that stigma.” While Sessions insisted that the problems could be chalked up to individual bad actors, Hirono pointed out that the consent decrees are based on a pattern of behavior, not simply the actions of a few bad apples.

Sessions’s exchange with Hirono is the clearest evidence yet that Sessions, who has been endorsed by many law enforcement groups, does not intend to pursue investigations of police abuse as aggressively as his predecessor. The implications of not doing so, in an era where the police shooting of an unarmed black man can be broadcast all over the world in moments, are vast.

Trump's Pick for Homeland Security Secretary Rejects Idea of Registering People Based on Religion

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Retired General John Kelly, the president-elect’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security, rejected the idea of registering people based on religion or ethnicity during his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday. He also suggested that mosque surveillance as well as the creation of a Muslim database would be unconstitutional.

Democratic Senator Gary Peters asked Kelly if he would “agree that putting mosques under generalized surveillance and establishing a Muslim database … would raise serious constitutional issues,” to which Kelly responded that while he is not a lawyer, “to the degree that I understand those laws, yes sir.”

Peters then asked Kelly if he would “commit to ensuring that religion does not become a basis for U.S. counterterrorism or law enforcement policy, particularly as it relates to the targeting of individuals with ancestry from Muslim majority countries.” Kelly responded: “I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to focus on something like religion as the only factor, so yes sir.” Later, Kelly added: “I don’t agree with registering people based on ethnic[ity] or religion or anything like that.”

During his presidential campaign, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” as well as mosque surveillance. In November, Reuters reported, citing an interview with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, that “Trump’s policy advisors had ... discussed drafting a proposal for his consideration to reinstate a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.” A spokesman for the president-elect’s transition team said that “Trump has never advocated for any registry or system that tracks individuals based on their religion.”

Sessions Leaves the Door Open to Indefinite Detention of Americans

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

During his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s choice to be attorney general, did not rule out holding American citizens suspected of terrorism in indefinite detention.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, asked Sessions: “Do you believe that the government can, pursuant to general authorization to use military force, indefinitely detain Americans in the United States without charge or trial?”

Sessions’s answer was telling. He cited South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham in arguing that if “these individuals [could] be proven to be connected to an enemy or designated enemy of the United States,” then they could be detained.

The answer is striking, because Graham has previously argued in favor of indefinite detention of American Muslims accused of terrorism, even before any nexus to foreign groups has been proven. In 2013, Graham demanded the Obama administration hold Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, later convicted for his role in the bombing of the Boston Marathon, in indefinite detention as an enemy combatant. If Sessions adheres to the view Graham articulated in 2013, then he believes that Americans accused of terrorism could be indefinitely detained without trial or charge, even without a proven connection to, or membership in, foreign terror groups.

Pressed by Feinstein, Sessions said that “they cannot be detained without undergoing a habeas review, and the government surely has to prove that they are indeed connected sufficiently with an enemy action against the United States, or they couldn’t be detained.” But habeas review is not the same thing as being criminally charged. Detainees at Guantanamo Bay, for example, have habeas rights, under the 2008 Boumediene v. Bush decision. It certainly sounds as though Sessions has left open the possibility that an American citizen accused of terrorism could be detained without trial.

Trump’s Homeland Security Pick Has “High Confidence” in U.S. Intelligence on Russia

Mike Segar / Reuters

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security has “high confidence” in the U.S. intelligence community’s findings on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Retired General John Kelly expressed that view—which could put him at odds with Trump—during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, in response to questioning from Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill.

McCaskill quoted directly from a report released on Friday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election” that was intended to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” The report also stated that “Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump” and stated that there is “high confidence in these judgements.”

When McCaskill asked Kelly if he accepts the conclusions of the intelligence community on Russian election interference, he responded: “With high confidence.”

That response will likely provide some relief to Democrats and congressional Republicans who accept the intelligence assessment, but it may not sit well with the president-elect.

Trump has cast doubt on U.S. intelligence with respect to Russian hacking in the past. In a statement released after an intelligence briefing on Friday, he stressed that “while Russia, China, other countries, outside groups, and people are constantly trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democratic National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.” He further added, however, that “we need to aggressively combat and stop cyberattacks.”

Confirmation Hearing for Trump's Pick for Secretary of Homeland Security Gets Underway

Mike Segar / Reuters

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has convened to consider the nomination of John Kelly to serve as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Kelly is a retired four-star Marine general who previously led U.S. Southern Command. While his nomination is expected to win Senate confirmation, he’ll likely face questioning from Democrats over Trump’s promises to crackdown on illegal immigration and tighten border security.

Claire McCaskill, the Senate panel’s top Democrat, noted in her opening remarks that the Department of Homeland Security makes up a part of the U.S. intelligence community, and told Kelly that she wants to “understand whether you will take intelligence seriously.” She stressed that she hopes the next secretary of homeland security will “engage with the people whose job it is to give us good information, so that we can make better decisions, and so that the president-elect can make better decisions.”

Trump has cast doubt on the credibility of the U.S. intelligence community, which has concluded that Russia directed hacks intended to interfere with the U.S. presidential election. In early January, he alleged on Twitter that an “’Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’” had been delayed, questioning whether it was because “more time [was] needed to build a case.” He later tweeted that “The media lies to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence’ when in fact I am a big fan.”

McCaskill suggested that she hopes that Kelly will be willing to stand up to Trump if necessary. “In our meeting before this hearing, you said that one of your greatest strengths as a leader is ‘speaking truth to power,’” McCaskill said, adding: “I believe very much in that principle and I think that we all anticipate that you will need it in your next job where you will have the responsibility and obligation to speak truth to the commander-in-chief, who has used some of his most extreme and divisive rhetoric about issues under the Department of Homeland Security’s jurisdiction.”

Republican Senator John McCain spoke in support of the nomination and similarly described Kelly as a truth-teller, saying: “John Kelly says what he believes to be the truth, always, no matter the inconvenience it might cause him.”

Sessions's Stance on Medical and Decriminalized Marijuana

Alex Brandon / AP

Would Senator Sessions favor active enforcement of federal marijuana law as attorney general, or would he continue the uneasy detente between federal and state marijuana policies? Though the sale and use of marijuana are still illegal under federal law, selective enforcement of that law under the leadership of former Attorney General Eric Holder and current Attorney General Loretta Lynch has allowed 26 states to effectively make marijuana legal in some form. Pledges from Sessions in his opening statement to be both a drug warrior and a champion of states’ rights seem to be in conflict with that status quo.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy picked up on that potential source of conflict in a line of questioning this afternoon, asking Sessions about his future plans for enforcing federal marijuana policy. “Would you use our federal resources to investigate and prosecute people who are using marijuana for medical purposes?” Leahy asked Sessions.

Sessions largely dodged confirming that he’d more strictly enforce federal law. “I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law,” Sessions said. “It’s a problem of resources for the federal government.” He also disavowed his previous position advocating for the death penalty for people convicted of multiple drug-distribution charges. And he had relatively warm words for the guidelines set on strategic enforcement—and non-enforcement—by Lynch and Holder. “Some of them are truly valuable,” Sessions said, “[but] they may not have been followed.”

Republican Senator Mike Lee had similar questions for Sessions, after he gave a short speech on the value of federalism and Sessions’s commitment to it. Lee asked Sessions if strategic non-enforcement of federal laws by the Department of Justice violates the spirit of the Constitution. Sessions deflected, noting that “the U.S. Congress has made possession of marijuana in every state and distribution an illegal act.” He advocated that Congress change the federal laws if it wants marijuana to be made truly legal.

Though it’s impossible to predict with certainty how his Justice Department would actually handle marijuana enforcement, Sessions’s slipperiness on the issue Tuesday is perhaps a surprise, given his history of displaying open antipathy toward marijuana usage.

Franken Questions Sessions's Civil-Rights Record

Gary Cameron / Reuters

Minnesota Senator Al Franken accused Jeff Sessions of “inflating” his role in a number of civil-rights cases during his tenure as a U.S. attorney in Alabama and “misrepresenting” that work in his questionnaire to the Judiciary Committee.

My colleague Adam Serwer reported in December that there was no evidence Sessions, who previously claimed he “filed 20 or 30” desegregation cases, had filed any new school-desegregation cases during his tenure between 1981 and 1993. Three former Justice Department officials also wrote a Washington Post op-ed earlier this month claiming Sessions had minimal to no participation in three of the four cases he cited in his Judiciary Committee questionnaire.

“Are they distorting your record?” Franken asked. Sessions said they were, and said that he signed his name on the cases. Franken then pressed him on his involvement, citing submitted testimony from two of the ex-Justice Department officials who said his involvement in two of the four cases Sessions had described in his questionnaire was limited or nonexistent.

Sessions countered that he frequently provided advice and guidance to lawyers, and that he maintained an “open-door policy” with Civil Rights Division lawyers at the time. Franken seemed unconvinced. Noting that he was one of the few non-lawyers on the committee, he said that it seemed misleading to take credit for cases in which Sessions had only signed his name to a filing. The country needs an attorney general who doesn’t “misrepresent or inflate” their role in major civil-rights or national-security cases, Franken added.

In response, Sessions reiterated that he had signed and supported the cases, but also ended the exchange with a conditional apology. “If I’m in error, then I apologize to you,” he told Franken. “I don’t think I was.”

Sessions did not go undefended by his fellow Republican lawmakers. Texas Senator Ted Cruz later defended him by pointing out that Gerald Hebert, one of the former Justice Department lawyers who wrote the Post op-ed, had criticized Sessions at the legislator’s 1986 confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship and was later “forced to recant” his testimony.

Puzder's Hearing Is Delayed, Too

Fred Prouser / Reuters

Senate Republicans are delaying the confirmation hearing of a second Trump Cabinet nominee who does not have a certified ethics agreement.

Andrew Puzder, the nominee for labor secretary, was tentatively scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on January 17, but now that may not happen until February, said an aide to Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the committee. The change is in part a ripple effect of the committee’s decision late Monday night to push back the hearing for Betsy DeVos, the nominee for education secretary. She was scheduled to testify before the panel on Wednesday, but amid complaints from Democrats that the Office of Government Ethics had not signed off on her financial-disclosure report and ethics agreement, that hearing was pushed back until January 17.

Like DeVos, Puzder is a wealthy businessperson whose vast financial holdings would require more time and effort to untangle to comply with federal laws governing conflicts of interest for government officials. Republicans have now rescheduled several confirmation hearings for this week and next, but the delay on Puzder’s confirmation is the longest so far. A February committee hearing and likely opposition from Democrats means that even if he is confirmed, he won’t take office until a month or more after Trump’s inauguration. Based on the announcements of the last two days, Republicans appear to be prioritizing swift confirmation of Trump’s national-security team and domestic nominees who face less opposition from Democrats.

The Senate Examines Sessions's History on Voting Rights

Eric Gay / AP

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar probed Senator Sessions’s views on voting rights in the wake of the Shelby County Supreme Court decision, asking how he would enforce voter protections as a wave of new voting legislation and contested redistricting laws courses through the judicial system. “How would you approach this going forward?” Klobuchar asked.

As in the past, Sessions evinced a complicated relationship with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the law that established federal protections for voting rights and judicial and Justice Department oversight over elections laws. On the one hand, Sessions voted in 2006 to reauthorize the VRA, and in the hearing Tuesday defended its overall logic. “There was a clear finding that there was discriminatory action in the South,” he said, “with the specific purpose of blocking African Americans from voting.”

But Sessions has also repeatedly attacked the law’s key provisions—especially the “preclearance” requirement that grants Justice Department review over voting laws in counties and states with a legacy of racism—as “intrusive.” He has also exhibited skepticism over the continued existence of racism in the South.

Sessions did not back down from his previous criticism of the law during Tuesday’s hearing. “It is intrusive,” he said. “The Supreme Court on more than one occasion has described it legally as an intrusive act.” He again reaffirmed his agreement with Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder that targeting specific areas based on their histories of racism, and not applying the law to the whole country, is burdensome.

Klobuchar asked how Sessions would handle measures like the Texas voter ID law that was considered unconstitutional on the grounds of racial discrimination by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016. He again expressed skepticism about the idea that such provisions are discriminatory. “Whether or not that is a restriction on voting that disproportionately impacts minority citizens … on the surface of it, it does not appear to be that way to me,” Sessions said. But he did acknowledge that the issue is up for interpretation in the legal system, and that he would enforce the law based on the legal consensus that emerges.

Sessions: 'Fundamentally, We Need to Fix This Immigration System'

Alex Brandon / AP

In Tuesday’s hearing, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions reaffirmed his opposition to President Obama’s executive order on immigration, which aimed to shield millions of undocumented immigrants, including those who were brought to the United States as children, from deportation. But he did not provide a clear response on what action should be taken to repeal it.

“That will be a decision that needs to be studied and [Donald Trump] would need to agree to, but it’s an executive order—really, a memorandum of the Department of Homeland Security. It would certainly be constitutional, I believe, to end that order,” Sessions said, in response to Senator Lindsey Graham’s question on the federal government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Graham also opposes the executive order.

Sessions, who has staunchly opposed comprehensive immigration reform, has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration’s actions on immigration. Graham asked Sessions how he would address those “who have come out of the shadows” in recent years. “Fundamentally, we need to fix this immigration system. It’s not been working right,” Sessions replied. He added: “We’ve entered more and more millions of people illegally into the country.” Since 2008, however, the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has been declining.

Sessions on Russian Hacking: 'I Have Done No Research' Into That Claim

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, asked Senator Jeff Sessions whether he believed Russia was behind the hack of the U.S. election—as U.S. intelligence agencies have asserted. Sessions’s reply: “I have done no research” into that claim, adding much of what he’d seen about the hacks was from the news media. Sessions, without specifically naming Russia, also noted that several countries had hacked U.S. government agencies.

“We know the Chinese have revealed millions of background information on millions of people in the United States and these I suppose ultimately are part of international big-power politics,” he said. “But when a nation uses their improperly gained or intelligence-wise gained information to take policy positions that impact another nation's democracy or their approach to any issue, then that raises real serious matters.”

As head of the Justice Department, Sessions would have jurisdictional oversight of the FBI, which was one of the agencies that concluded last week that Russian President Vladimir “Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”

Graham asked Sessions whether he generally trusted the FBI’s work. Sessions said he did, and added the bureau’s conclusion about Russian hacking was done “honorably.”

Trump has been skeptical of the intelligence assessments, saying it’s difficult to know who carried out the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and its officials.  

Lawmakers Spar Over Hate-Crimes Legislation

Alex Brandon / AP

In his questions to Senator Jeff Sessions during Tuesday’s confirmation hearing, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy questioned Sessions’s past views on hate-crimes protection for LGBT individuals and women.

At the center of Leahy’s inquiry was a 2009 vote on the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a bill that extended federal hate-crimes legislation to people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. Sessions objected to this expansion of protections in federal law, citing the effectiveness of state and local courts in prosecuting such cases as well as his concerns about double jeopardy. His objections came as reports found hate crimes to be rising across the country, especially against LGBT individuals.

“You said that expanded hate-crimes protections to LGBT individuals was unwarranted and possibly unconstitutional,” Leahy told Sessions. Though Sessions did object to the expansion of federal protections to LGBT people, most of his efforts opposing the 2009 bill centered on a different issue. He argued that the law would incorrectly make rape a federal offense, since—according to Sessions—rape is a crime committed against someone because of their gender.

On Tuesday, Sessions defended his objections to the bill, but declared that as attorney general he would not act on those objections. “Mr. Chairman, that law has been passed and Congress has spoken,” Sessions said. “You can be sure I will enforce it.”

Sessions Pledges to Be a Drug Warrior and a Ballot Protector

Andrew Harnik / AP

In his opening statement at Tuesday’s hearing, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions cited a rise in national crime rates and drug deaths as rationale for his confirmation to the role of Attorney General, and also proclaimed himself a champion of voting rights for communities of color. In said role, Sessions would lead the Department of Justice and the bulk of federal law- and drug-enforcement efforts under the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, and would be charged with enforcing the integrity of national, state, and local elections under the Voting Rights Act.

Sessions claimed that “the latest FBI statistics show that all crime increased nearly four percent from 2014 to 2015—the largest increase since 1991—with murders increasing nearly 11 percent, the single largest increase since 1971.” That claim is partly correct, as violent crime did increase by nearly four percent in that period, even as property crime decreased. And though murders and violent crime have seen some uptick on a year-to-year basis since 2015, they still sit well below even 2009 levels. Overall, crime rates only increased by 0.3 percent last year, and the city of Chicago, which Sessions mentioned directly, accounted for over 40 percent of the increase in murders.

Sessions also pointed to the dramatic rise in opioid deaths over the past few years as reason for his confirmation. Again, the claim is accurate, as is his statement that most heroin comes from across the U.S.–Mexico border. But the opioid crisis is driven by prescription drug addiction, and Sessions’s general stance on drugs appears to be at odds with the developing public-health consensus on how to combat those addictions. Sessions is in favor of broadly recriminalizing all drugs—including marijuana—and reestablishing the War on Drugs, though that punitive stance has not been determined effective in combating drug deaths, and emerging evidence has found that legal marijuana helps combat opioid overdoses.

The Alabamian also pledged to protect “access to the ballot for every eligible voter,” including vulnerable people of color. But Sessions applauded the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision that invalidated the congressional formulation for voter districts covered by the Voting Rights Act, and diminished the ability of the Justice Department to oversee voting-rights violations. The day of the decision, Sessions said that “if you go to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, people aren’t being denied the vote because of the color of their skin.”

That claim—if true at the time—is dubious today. After the Shelby County decision, several states moved immediately to pass more restrictive voting laws that have been determined to disproportionately impact minorities. North Carolina especially has run afoul of the racial-discrimination provisions of the Voting Rights Act, passing a redistricting plan considered by courts to be a racial gerrymander, and a voting law that was found by the Fourth Circuit Court to target black people with “almost surgical precision.”

Sessions: I Would Recuse Myself From Future Clinton Investigations

Andrew Harnik / AP

Trump supporters frequently chanted “Lock her up!” in reference to Hillary Clinton during campaign rallies last year. But Jeff Sessions says he would take no part in any cases against the former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate. The statement came in response to a query by Senator Chuck Grassley, who cited Sessions’s criticism of Clinton’s legal affairs during the election. Sessions told lawmakers he believes “the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse myself from any questions involving those kinds of investigations,” including hypothetical cases into the Clinton Foundation or her private email server. Trump has also distanced himself from pursuing further investigations.

Schumer Welcomes Hearing Schedule Changes

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, is calling the reduction in the number of confirmation hearings slated for Wednesday “a first good step.” Six such hearings were initially scheduled—to Senate Democrats’ dismay—but that number has since been cut to three.

It’s worth pointing out that multiple hearings on a single day is by no means a new development. As the folks over at FiveThirtyEight point out, both Presidents George W. Bush (six) and Obama (five) scheduled multiple hearings for their nominees.

The six Cabinet appointees initially scheduled to have hearings Wednesday were Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson, Elaine Chao, Betsy DeVos, John Kelly, and Mike Pompeo. But since that schedule was first floated, there have been several changes—mostly because of pushback from Democrats who complained that not only were the hearings too closely packed together, but also that many of the nominees hadn’t returned forms detailing their potential conflicts of interest. DeVos’s hearing is now on January 17, and Pompeo’s was moved to Thursday. Sessions’s two-day hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee started Tuesday morning.

In his statement, Schumer, a Democrat from New York, cited both those reasons as the cause for his opposition. “As we have long said, Democrats will not be dilatory as long as the nominees’ paperwork is in and there is adequate time to prepare for and ask questions during the hearings,” he said. “The nominees with hearings today have turned in their paperwork, but several others scheduled have yet to meet that standard.”

Sessions Promises an Independent Department of Justice

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions testified during his confirmation hearing that he would “tell the President ‘no’ if he overreaches,” seeking to put to rest fears that the Justice Department in a Donald Trump administration would be used to persecute the president’s political enemies or rubber-stamp unlawful policies.

“The Office of the Attorney General of the United States is not a political position, and anyone who holds it must have total fidelity to the laws and the Constitution of the United States,” Sessions said. “He or she must be committed to following the law.”

Nevertheless, during the 2016 presidential election, Trump repeatedly stated his intention to direct the Department of Justice to investigate his opponent Hillary Clinton, even telling her during a debate that if he were president she would be imprisoned. “Lock her up” was a common chant at Trump rallies throughout the campaign, although the president-elect backed off his stated intention to prosecute Clinton after winning the election.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee, also raised concerns about the Department of Justice’s independence during her opening testimony. An attorney general “"does not investigate or prosecute at the direction of the president," she reminded Sessions.

Senators Draw Battle Lines in Sessions Hearing

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions’s confirmation hearing for attorney general is now under way. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the leading Republican on the Judiciary Committee, opened the hearing with a lengthy, glowing introduction for his colleague.

“On this committee, we don't always agree on the right way to handle the complex policy issues we consider, and when you have served in the Senate as long as Senator Sessions and I have, you're bound to find at least a few points of disagreement with even the most like-minded colleagues. But Senator Sessions, two decades of service beside me testify without question to this: He is a man of honor and integrity, dedicated to the faithful and fair enforcement of the law, who knows well and deeply respects the Department of Justice and its constitutional role,” he told the committee and assembled spectators.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking Democratic member, was less genial. Sessions’s nomination has drawn strong opposition from liberal groups, who cite his controversial record on civil rights and history of allegedly racist remarks. Feinstein indicated she would place questions about these issues front and center in his hearing. “Now, for all these reasons this hearing must determine clearly whether this senator will enforce laws he voted against. We the American people want to know how he intends to use this awesome power of the attorney general if he is confirmed,” Feinstein said. “Will he use it fairly? Will he use it in a way that respects law and the Constitution? Will he use it in a way that eases tensions among our communities and our law-enforcement officers? Will he be independent of the White House? Will he tell the president ‘no’ when necessary and faithfully enforce ethics laws and constitutional restrictions? So we will ask questions and we will press for answers.”

A Rundown of the Week’s Confirmation Hearings

Senator Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who is President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to be attorney general, will go before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday where he's likely to face tough questions from Democrats on the panel on his record on civil rights and immigration. Sessions is the first of Trump's nominees to get a confirmation hearing. Here is the timetable for some of the others:

Senator Jeff Sessions: The Alabama Republican appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee at 9:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday, January 10, and Wednesday, January 11. Full list of witnesses here.

John Kelly: The retired Marine general appears before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at 3:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, January 10. Kelly is Trump's choice to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Rex Tillerson: The former Exxon CEO appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at 9:15 a.m. ET on Wednesday, January 11, and at 10 a.m. ET on Thursday, January 12. He is Trump's nominee to be secretary of state.

Elaine Chao: The former labor secretary in the administration of President George W. Bush is Trump's choice to run the Department of Transportation. Her hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, January 11, at 10:15 a.m. ET before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Mike Pompeo: The Republican congressman from Kansas is Trump's nominee to head the CIA. He will appear Thursday, January 12, before members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He was initially scheduled to appear before the panel on Wednesday; the reason for the move is not clear.

Wilbur Ross: The billionaire investor is the nominee for commerce secretary. He will appear before the same panel as Chao, but on Thursday, January 12, at 10 a.m. ET.

Ben Carson: The former neurosurgeon is Trump's nominee to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. His hearing before the Senate Housing Committee is on Thursday, January 12, at 10 a.m. ET.

James Mattis: The retired Marine Corps General is scheduled to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, January 12. He is Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense.

Betsy DeVos: The conservative education activist, who is the nominee to head the Department of Education, will appear before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, January 17. Her hearing was scheduled to be Wednesday, January 11, but was delayed amid criticism from Democrats that Republicans were rushing to confirm Trump's nominees without sufficiently vetting them. More on that here.

Additionally, Andy Puzder, the nominee for labor secretary, and Nikki Haley, Trump's choice for the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, are tentatively scheduled to have nomination hearings next week. We will post the dates once they are confirmed.

Our full list of Trump's Cabinet appointments is here.