Mr. Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, said allegations that he is sympathetic to groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or is otherwise racially biased are “damnably false.” The issue of race has hovered over the selection of Mr. Sessions to be the nation’s top law-enforcement officer, in part because his 1986 nomination to be a federal judge was rejected amid racial concerns.
Mr. Sessions, like virtually all Mr. Trump’s nominees, is expected to be confirmed by the GOP-controlled Senate. But the hearings provide Democrats a platform to try to elicit commitments in various policy areas and to express their displeasure. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the committee, said many people are worried about the incoming Trump presidency, especially in black communities, and in a highly unusual move, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was to testify against Mr. Sessions’s nomination, calling some of the Republican’s political views “deeply troubling.”
Mr. Sessions, rather than waiting for pointed questions on the racial issue, took the initiative in his opening statement, saying that as a state prosecutor he had forcefully pushed the prosecution of KKK members accused of killing a young black man, successfully advocating the death penalty for one of them. The KKK has been an issue for Mr. Sessions because at his 1986 hearing, he was asked about allegations that he had told a black federal prosecutor in Alabama who had worked for him that the group “was O.K. until I found out they smoked pot.”
Mr. Sessions suggested at that 1986 hearing that his comment wasn’t meant to be taken seriously and that it was “ludicrous” to think he supported the group.
In Tuesday’s hearing, responding to another allegation that has been made, Mr. Sessions said he had never declared that the NAACP was un-American. He said he was simply warning that the group could be perceived that way, given its support for Latin American communist groups.
The selection of Mr. Sessions, a 70-year-old who has spent the past 20 years in the Senate, could elevate one of the chamber’s most conservative members and one of its loudest critics of illegal immigration. Mr. Trump during the campaign took a tough line against illegal immigration and suggested he would support tough interrogation methods that some call torture, but since the election he has appeared to soften those statements.