US PRESIDENT-ELECT Donald Trump’s government appointees faced more congressional grilling yesterday after protesters accused his attorney general of racism.
Demonstrators dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes were ejected from the Senate hearings into Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions’s fitness to serve as the top government prosecutor.
But the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) stopped short of calling the attorney general-designate “racist.”
NAACP legal defence fund president Sherrilyn Ifill said Mr Sessions’s many friends on Capitol Hill could pick up on such language as a distraction from serious discussion of his record.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker — one of three black senators — was set to appear at the hearings yesterday, saying Mr Sessions had a “concerning” record on civil rights and criminal justice reform and that his decision to testify is “a call to conscience.”
As district attorney for south Alabama, Mr Sessions was criticised for his 1985 prosecution of three civil rights activists for filling in 14 absentee ballots for elderly black voters. The so-called “Marion Three” were acquitted of the charges.
Then-president Ronald Reagan nominated Mr Sessions to the Alabama district court in 1986.
But he was not appointed amid accusations that he had called a black attorney “boy” — which he denied — and the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) “unAmerican” and “communistinspired” for their support of Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista movement.
Martin Luther King’s widow Coretta Scott King said then that he had used his office “in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.”
But Republican Senator Ted Cruz defended Mr Sessions’s record, pointing to his charging of two KKK members for the 1981 murder of young black man Michael Donald, the last recorded lynching in the US. The pair were later convicted.
And Mr Sessions said waterboarding, a now-banned torture method which Mr Trump has previously endorsed, was “absolutely improper and illegal.”
Senators were also ready to accuse Mr Trump’s choice for secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, of being a Kremlin stooge for his opposition to sanctions against Russia over Ukraine and Syria.
Warhawk Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Mr Tillerson’s appointment would hinge on whether he accepted unproven intelligence claims that Russian government hackers influence the outcome of the November presidential election.
“Bottom line is, if you don’t want to do anything about what Russia did, if you don’t believe they’re a good candidate for additional sanctions, I think a lot of people are going to look at you as not having the judgement for the job,” Senator Graham said.
Outgoing US President Barack Obama sought to burnish his eight years in office in his farewell speech on Tuesday night in his home town of Chicago.
Overlooking his broken promises on peace in the Middle East and the closure of the Guantanmo Bay prison camp, he focused on expanded medical insurance, the legalisation of gay marriage by the Supreme Court and detente with Iran and Cuba.
“The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody,” he added, in an apparent reference to his foreign policy of violent regime change from Venezuela to Libya and Syria.