WASHINGTON ― Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, said Tuesday that he would not support a ban on Muslims entering the United States, and insisted the president-elect no longer wants one, either.
“I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States,” Sessions said at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“We have great Muslim citizens, they have contributed in so many different ways and [Americans] are great believers in religious freedom and the right of people to exercise their religious beliefs,” he added.
Sessions could soon helm the Justice Department ― which is charged in part with protecting civil rights and religious freedom ― under a president who issued a statement in December 2015 to propose banning Muslims from the country. Sessions was an early Trump backer and praised him at the time of the proposal for starting a conversation on who should be admitted into the country. However, he also said the then-candidate was “treading on dangerous ground because Americans are so deeply committed to freedom of religion.”
Trump has never expressed remorse for suggesting the ban, despite experiencing immediate backlash from within his own party, but he later switched to saying people from certain countries ― mostly majority-Muslim ones ― should be kept out. Sessions has largely advocated banning people based on their country of origin rather than by religion, and noted in response to questioning on Tuesday that Trump has more recently advocated the same.
As Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) pointed out at the hearing, Sessions opposed a resolution saying the U.S. should not use religious tests for immigration into the country, drafted in response to Trump’s Muslim ban proposal.
Sessions said he opposed the resolution because “it was suggesting that you could not seriously consider a person’s religious views.”
“Often, sometimes at least ― not in a majority, but many people do have religious views that are inimicable to the public safety of the United States,” Sessions said. “I did not want to have a resolution that suggested that that could not be a factor in the vetting process before someone is admitted.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who opposed the Muslim ban proposal, questioned Sessions on the matter later. Again, Sessions said he would not support blocking all Muslims. But he said it would be “prudent” to block people who say they are Muslim and want to kill others, in response to a hypothetical posed by Graham.
“I hope we can keep people out of country who want to kill everybody because of their religion,” Graham said. “I hope we’re smart enough to know that’s not what most people in the Muslim faith believe.”
“But it can be the religion of that person,” Sessions replied.