WASHINGTON (AFP) - Donald Trump's choice for attorney general on Tuesday (Jan 10) vehemently denied accusations of racism against him, as the US Senate launched confirmation hearings for key nominees to the Republican president-elect's cabinet.
Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama was the first of a parade of nominees set to go before their Republican and Democratic Senate peers this week, as Trump seeks to get some of his top people into place before taking office on Jan 20.
Sessions, whose nomination has drawn fierce pushback from Democrats, swiftly sought to tamp down a swell of criticism of his civil rights record, which has threatened to upend his bid to become the nation's top law enforcement official.
"These are damnably false charges," he told a packed Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, referring to accusations about alleged racially charged comments he made in the 1980s toward and about African Americans when he was a federal prosecutor.
"This caricature of me in 1986 was not correct," Sessions said, referring to the period when his federal judgeship nomination collapsed amid what he called "an organised effort" of racism accusations.
"I did not harbour the kind of animosity and race-based ideas that I was accused of. I did not."
Sessions pointed to his involvement in several high-profile civil rights cases in his district, including one in which he successfully prosecuted a member of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan group for murdering a young black man.
Even before the proceedings began, tensions rose when protesters including several from the anti-war, pro-human-rights group Code Pink stood up and brandished signs that read: "End racism, stop Sessions," and "End hate, stop Sessions."
As he was being greeted by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, two male protesters dressed in the white robes and hoods of the Klan began shouting at Sessions about his past and expressing mock gratitude that such a conservative was in line to be attorney general.
"You can't arrest me, I'm a white man!" bellowed one of the men as he was ushered out by police.
Sessions, 70, grew up in the segregated South. He has expressed opposition to immigration and voted against a bipartisan violence against women act.
When he was questioned directly by Democrat Dianne Feinstein about whether he would follow Trump's campaign call to jail rival Hillary Clinton over her emails, he said he would step back from any case involving the former Democratic presidential nominee.
"I believe the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse myself from any questions involving those kind of investigations that involve Secretary Clinton that were raised during the campaign," he said.
Sessions began his opening statement by assuring the panel that the attorney general "must be willing to tell the president 'no' if he overreaches."
But he also sought to assuage concerns about his past.
"As a southerner, who actually saw discrimination and have no doubt it existed in a systematic and powerful and negative way... I know that was wrong," Sessions said.
"And I know we can do better. We can never go back."
And he signalled that despite his strong personal opposition to the Supreme Court ruling which enshrined US abortion rights, he would not act to overturn it.
"It is the law of the land. It has been so and settled for a long time, and I would respect it and follow it," he said.
Grassley hailed Sessions' lifetime of public service, saying: "He has done his duty, enforced the law fairly, and let the chips fall where they may." But protesters were very vocal about Sessions and the incoming Trump administration.
"Sessions is a racist, he's illegitimate, just like the whole Trump regime," shouted an African-American man as he was escorted out.
And Democratic Senator Cory Booker has said he will testify against Sessions at Tuesday's hearing - a departure from many decades of Senate protocol.
Democrats however have little chance of derailing Sessions' nomination, or those of Trump's other nominees.
All require a simple majority in the 100-seat Senate. Republicans control 52 Senate seats, so the nominees would only face problems if some Republicans defect.
"They'll all pass," a confident Trump predicted Monday.
Homeland security secretary designate John Kelly was to appear at his hearing later Tuesday.
Four more hearings were to begin Wednesday, including that of Rex Tillerson, the wealthy ExxonMobil oilman who Trump has tapped to be his secretary of state, on the same day of Trump's first press conference in six months.
Democrats have expressed concern the vetting process is being rushed, especially given what they say are thorny conflict-of-interest issues.