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[WASHINGTON] US President-elect Donald Trump's choice for attorney general promised on Tuesday to stand up to Mr Trump, his close ally and future boss, saying he would oppose a ban on Muslims entering the country and enforce a law against waterboarding.
Questioned by a US Senate committee tasked with confirming his appointment, Senator Jeff Sessions distanced himself from comments he had made defending Mr Trump from criticism over a 2005 video that emerged in October showing Mr Trump boasting about grabbing women's genitals.
At the time Mr Sessions told The Weekly Standard magazine he would not characterise the behaviour as sexual assault. He later said the comments were taken out of context.
Asked on Tuesday whether "grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent is... sexual assault," he replied, "Clearly, it would be."
With 10 days to go before Mr Trump takes office, Mr Sessions, 70, was the first Cabinet nominee to face questioning. He appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr Trump's pick to run the Department of Homeland Security, retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, later went before the Homeland Security committee.
As attorney general, Mr Sessions will serve as the top US federal prosecutor and be responsible for giving unbiased legal advice to the president and executive agencies.
With that in mind, lawmakers from both Mr Trump's Republican Party and the rival Democratic Party sought to establish how closely Mr Sessions hewed to Mr Trump positions and whether he could put aside his staunchly conservative political positions to enforce laws he may personally oppose.
A senator since 1997, Mr Sessions was widely expected to be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Protesters accusing Mr Sessions of having a poor record on human rights interrupted the Capitol Hill proceedings several times.
Mr Sessions said he would not support banning anyone from the United States on the basis of religion, and said Mr Trump's intentions were to restrict people from countries harbouring terrorists, not all Muslims. Elected on Nov 8, Mr Trump at one point had campaigned on a proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country.
Mr Sessions said he favoured "higher intensity of vetting" for refugees seeking to enter the United States from countries that harbour terrorists but added he would oppose ending the US refugee programme.
Mr Sessions said he would enforce a 2015 law that outlawed waterboarding terrorism suspects even if it meant resisting Mr Trump. The senator said he had voted against the law, believing those in high positions in the military and intelligence community should be able to do so.
During the campaign Mr Trump said waterboarding, which simulates drowning and is widely regarded as torture, was an effective technique and vowed to bring it back and make it "a hell of a lot worse".
More recently Mr Trump has said retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, his nominee for secretary of defence, had persuasively argued against it.
Mr Sessions said he would enforce laws upheld by the US Supreme Court, even those he disagreed with, such as decisions making abortion and same-sex marriage legal.
Mr Sessions said the comments he made during the 2016 presidential campaign about Hillary Clinton's email practices and charitable foundation would cloud the perception of impartiality if the Justice Department continued investigating Mrs Clinton. He said he would recuse himself and favoured a special prosecutor to carry out any future investigations.
Mr Trump, who defeated Mrs Clinton, said during the campaign that if elected he would ask his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to see that Mrs Clinton go to prison for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state and her relationship with her family's charitable foundation.
Mr Sessions said he agreed with Mr Trump in opposing Democratic President Barack Obama's executive action that granted temporary protection to immigrant children brought to the country illegally by their parents and would not oppose overturning it.
Mr Sessions, representing the deeply conservative Southern state of Alabama, has long opposed legislation that provides a path to citizenship for immigrants. He has also been a close ally of groups seeking to restrict legal immigration by placing limits on visas used by companies to hire foreign workers.
As head of the Justice Department, the attorney general oversees the immigration court system that decides whether immigrants are deported or granted asylum or some other kind of protection.
Mr Sessions renewed his criticism of the Obama administration for not being tougher on countries that refuse to take back criminal migrants ordered deported from the United States.
A key plank of Mr Trump's election campaign was his pledge to deport illegal immigrants and to build a wall along the US border with Mexico.
Separately, Mr Kelly told his hearing a physical barrier on its own is not enough to keep people and drugs from illegally entering the United States. In written testimony, Mr Kelly said"rapidly processing" and deporting immigrants in "significant numbers" would deter future illegal migration.
Currently, the US immigration court system has a backlog of over 500,000 cases awaiting a decision on deportation, asylum or some other kind of protection. Many migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border are given a notice to appear in court one to three years in the future.
DEFENCE AGAINST RACISM
Back in the Judiciary Committee, Mr Sessions several times defended himself against charges of racism. He said allegations that he harboured sympathies toward the Ku Klux Klan, a violent white supremacist organisation, are false.
"I abhor the Klan and what it represents and its hateful ideology," Mr Sessions said in his opening remarks.
Mr Sessions was denied confirmation to a federal judgeship in 1986 after allegations emerged that he made racist remarks, including testimony that he called an African-American prosecutor "boy", an allegation Mr Sessions denied.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said the Senate Judiciary Committee had received letters from 400 civil rights organisations opposing his confirmation to the country's top law enforcement post.