President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to be the new attorney general has denied sympathising with the Ku Klux Klan, in a tough Senate confirmation hearing.
Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, 69, also pledged to recuse himself from any investigation into former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
A Democratic senator expressed “deep concern” about the Alabama Republican’s nomination.
But Democrats do not have the power in the chamber to block his confirmation.
The attorney general, America’s top prosecutor, leads the US justice department and acts as the main adviser to the president on legal issues.
Beginning two days of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr Sessions, 69, testified that allegations he had once supported the KKK were “damnably false”.
“I abhor the Klan and what it represents and its hateful ideology,” he added.
Mr Sessions also acknowledged “the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters”.
Protesters repeatedly disrupted Tuesday’s hearing, including a couple dressed in KKK white robes who chanted: “No Trump, No KKK, No Racist USA.”
“Stop this racist pig from getting into power,” shouted an African-American demonstrator as she was led out of the hearing by police.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein voiced her concern over “fear in this country, particularly among the African-American community”.
She noted Mr Sessions had voted against an amendment affirming that the US would not bar people entering the US on the basis of their religion.
But Mr Sessions said he did not support the “idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States. We have great Muslim citizens.”
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley described the nominee as a “man of honour and integrity”.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy quizzed Mr Sessions about obscene comments Mr Trump made about women in a 2005 videotape.
Mr Trump had said “you can do anything” to women “when you’re a star” and bragged about trying to grope and kiss them.
Mr Leahy asked Mr Sessions: “Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without her consent sexual assault?”
Mr Sessions replied: “Clearly it is.”
Waterboarding ‘improper and illegal’
Mr Sessions also promised to remove himself from any investigation into Mrs Clinton, as well as her family’s charitable foundation.
He said his past criticism of her private emails and the Clinton Foundation “could place my objectivity in question”.
“We can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute,” Mr Sessions told the committee.
When asked whether he ever chanted the anti-Clinton slogan “lock her up”, the senator said: “No I did not… I don’t think.”
Mr Trump had pledged on the campaign trail to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Mrs Clinton, but he has since retracted that threat.
In other testimony:
- The pro-life social conservative recognised that same-sex marriage and the legal right to abortion were the law of the land
- He accepted waterboarding was “improper and illegal”, but said Guantanamo Bay fits the purpose of keeping prisoners “marvellously well”
- Mr Sessions reaffirmed his staunch opposition to amnesty, the granting of legal status to people who have entered the US illegally
- He said he “has no reason to doubt” US intelligence findings that linked Vladimir Putin to the hacking of Democratic party emails
With 20 years under his belt in the Senate, Mr Sessions is known as one of the most conservative members of the upper chamber.
He was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 after the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony that he made racist remarks.
Mr Sessions was also accused of calling a black assistant US attorney “boy” and telling him to be careful about how he spoke to “white folks”. He denied saying it.
But Republicans who have known him a long time deny Mr Sessions is a racist.
Some have pointed out he supported the award of a Congressional Gold Medal to civil rights heroine Rosa Parks. BBC News