If confirmed as US attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions would recuse himself from any Justice Department investigations of Hillary Clinton's email practices or her family's charitable foundation, he said.

Under questioning from Senator Charles Grassley at his confirmation hearing today, Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, acknowledged that his campaign-trail comments about the inquiries "could place my objectivity in question," and he said unequivocally that he would recuse himself.

"We can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute," he said.

The assertion was an early highlight of the hearing, as the future of the Clinton investigations has long been a source of public speculation since Donald Trump was elected president.

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Trump said during the campaign that he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton, his Democratic rival, even after the FBI concluded that it could not recommend criminal charges. But he has since softened that stance and suggested that he wanted to move past the matter.

A defence lawyer for Clinton declined to comment on Sessions's remarks.

Sessions also said he respects that Roe v. Wade, which underpins the right to an abortion, and the Supreme Court case legalising same sex-marriage are the law of the land, and said that he "would follow that law".

He said he would raise no objection if the Trump administration abandoned an executive action by President Barack Obama that allows people who came to the United States illegally as children to receive work permits and a reprieve from possible deportation, although he offered no solution for what to do with those who had received such reprieves.

"We've been placed in a bad situation," Sessions said.

Sessions, 70, is seeking to convince his colleagues that he is worthy of being the next US attorney general, and the Clinton-related matters were among the first topics to come up.

Sessions has been critical of the Clinton email investigation, and he has said it "seems like" the FBI had not fully investigated the dealings of the Clinton Foundation while Clinton was Secretary of State.

The two inquiries are separate, and although the email investigation has ended, the status of the foundation matter is murkier. Justice Department public integrity prosecutors told FBI agents earlier this year that they had no case, but agents have apparently continued to press the matter.

In his prepared remarks, Sessions cast himself as an old-school law enforcer who would crack down on violent crime, work to improve morale at local police departments and remain fiercely independent of the president who appointed him.


Sessions highlighted increases in violent crime in some areas of the country and asserted that the US might be at "the beginning of a dangerous trend" that could make it less safe. He promised vigorous prosecution of gun crimes, and expressed empathy for the civil rights struggles of African Americans.

Sessions spoke in a room packed with demonstrators, reporters and his family members. His two-day confirmation hearing is likely to be among the most hotly contested of all those for Trump's nominees.

Several protesters were escorted by police from the hearing. One was an African American man who yelled, "No Trump! No KKK!" Another protester, dressed in pink, laughed loudly as Senator Richard Shelby spoke about Sessions treating all Americans equally under the law. She resisted officers as she screamed, "This man is evil".

A man dressed in a KKK-style white hood was taken out after yelling, "Jefferson Beauregard! Jefferson Beauregard! We are the South!" Beauregard is Sessions's middle name.

The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Sessions for a federal judgeship in 1986 amid allegations of racially insensitive remarks, and civil rights advocates and others have mounted a vigorous campaign to deny him the attorney general post. But he is expected to win confirmation, and Sessions said he was treated unfairly at the previous hearing.


"I hope my tenure in this body has shown you that the caricature that was created of me was not accurate," he said.

Sessions also asserted independence from Trump, who appointed him to the job. The attorney general, he said, "must be willing to tell the president or other top officials 'no' if he or they overreach," and if pressed by the president to do something "unlawful or constitutional," must resign.

Sessions has taken controversial positions on immigration and the rights of LGBT people. He is alleged to have made racially insensitive comments, and he once unsuccessfully tried to prosecute civil rights activists for what he alleged was voting fraud.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, laying out Democrats' case against the senator, noted Sessions' deeply conservative record and remarked that he would have to enforce laws that he may not support.

"As attorney general, his job will not be to advocate for his beliefs," Feinstein said.

Of Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from immigrating to the US as a national security measure, Sessions said he thinks Trump favours stringent vetting of those coming from countries with a history of terrorism. He said he voted against a resolution that would have objected to a Muslim ban because he thought it would not allow for religion to be considered in the vetting process.


"Many people do have religious views that are inimical to the public safety of the United States," Sessions said.

Sessions also addressed issues of policing, saying that officers have come to feel "unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable actions of a few of their bad actors." He cited violent-crime statistics, such as Chicago's 4368 shooting victims in 2016 and the 11 per cent increase in homicides nationwide from 2014 to 2015 - and promised that he would prioritize turning the tide.

Sessions was introduced by fellow senators Shelby and Susan Collins, then offered a long opening statement. When the questioning finishes, 15 witnesses will speak about Sessions, including a former attorney general, the president of a national police union, and several civil rights and other advocates. The Senate Judiciary Committee revealed that one of Sessions's colleagues, Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, is expected to testify against him.

Sessions is considered one of the more well-liked members of the Senate, his polite and respectful style having won over colleagues whose political views differ from his. Democrats are thought to have little chance to flip any Republican members against the nominee.