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In opening statement, Sessions defends his civil rights record, promises to protect LGBT community

Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions arrives at Trump Tower in New York City. (Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)

President-elect Donald Trump's pick to be the next attorney general addressed claims of racism and homophobia straight out of the gate Tuesday at his Senate confirmation hearing.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) was tapped to lead the Department of Justice after becoming the first senator to throw his full support behind the Manhattan billionaire during the Republican presidential primary. But ever since Sessions was nominated, his critics have pointed to instances of alleged racist behavior by Sessions, who served as Alabama's attorney general before being elected to the U.S. Senate.

Sessions took on those charges Tuesday, telling the Senate Judiciary Committee during his opening statement:

Let me address another issue straight on. I was accused in 1986 of failing to protect the voting rights of African-Americans by presenting the Perry County case, the voter fraud case, and of condemning civil rights advocates and organizations and even harboring, amazingly, sympathies for the KKK.

Sessions called those charges, which were used to block his confirmation to a federal court post, "undeniably false," adding that his office was merely aiming to protect the integrity of the voting ballot, rather than suppress the voting rights of black citizens.

The Alabama senator then addressed claims that he once sided with the KKK, while opposing civil rights groups like the NAACP:

As for the KKK, I invited civil rights attorneys from Washington, D.C., to solve a very difficult investigation into the unconscionable, horrendous death of a young African-American coming home from the 7-Eleven store at night, simply because he was black.

"I abhor the Klan and what it represents and its hateful ideology," Sessions said, further denying claims he once called the NAACP "un-American."

Sessions then took it one step further, launching into promises to defend the LGBT community as the nation's chief law enforcement officer:

I understand the demands for justice and fairness made by our LGBT community. I will ensure that the statutes protecting their civil rights and their safety are fully enforced.

But despite Sessions' attempt to clarify his positions on a range of issues, Democrats aren't missing a beat.

The Democratic National Committee released a statement Tuesday morning — before Sessions' confirmation hearing started — blasting the senator for his "extreme views" it said are "directly at odds with the mission of the office he seeks.

Sessions has fought against voting rights and celebrated the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, which he called "intrusive." He helped block reforms in prison sentencing, attacked civil rights activists in court, and has a long history of making discriminatory and racially charged remarks. He has fought against LGBT rights, voting against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to allow workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. He even likened his effort to ban same-sex marriage to the movement to abolish slavery.

"Sessions is worse than unqualified for the job," the DNC statement added, criticizing the Senate "rushing" to confirm Sessions and other Trump appointees before the Office of Government Ethics has thoroughly reviewed their financial and ethical records.

One last thing…
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