WASHINGTON -- The big question hanging over the confirmation hearing for attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., was skirted, but never quite asked directly: Is he a racist?
The passions surrounding this question erupted several times as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned their longtime colleague on his fitness to serve as America's top law enforcement official.
Protesters, including a pair in Ku Klux Klan robes, disrupted the hearing; sporadic chants broke out of "No Trump! No KKK!" Among civil rights activists in the audience sat Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim soldier killed in action and a critic of Sessions. The panel's ranking Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, said the committee had heard concerns about Sessions from 400 civil rights organizations, 1,400 law professors, 1,000 law students and 70 reproductive-health groups.
Republican members and witnesses had anticipated such a campaign and came armed with anecdotes that challenged what they called a "caricature" of Sessions: He sponsored the first African-American member of the Mobile, Ala., chapter of Lions Club, for example, and appointed the first African-American as chief counsel to Republican senators.
There may never be a concrete answer as to Sessions' true beliefs, but on Tuesday he struck a conciliatory tone, repeatedly vowing to uphold laws even if he disagreed with them or they ran counter to the wants of President-elect Donald Trump.
Sessions vehemently denied the charges of racism and bigotry, breaking his typically calm, genial demeanor each time he defended his reputation from both decades-old remarks attributed to him and from more recent stances on issues such African-American voter suppression, immigration restructuring, abortion rights and protections for LGBT communities.
Other fiercely debated topics that arose at the hearing -- prosecuting Hillary Clinton over her email scandal, a ban on Muslims entering the country and the definition of sexual assault -- revealed a divergence between Sessions' positions and Trump's statements, perhaps signaling thorny discussions ahead.
Sessions, a harsh Clinton critic who's advocated prosecution, pledged to recuse himself from departmental discussions on whether to pursue a criminal case against the former Democratic presidential candidate over her use of a private email server to conduct official business, including whether she'd mishandled classified material.
Sessions once indicated support for a Muslim ban but qualified his statements Tuesday, saying extremist views and not religion alone would be grounds for extra vetting or denial of entry. He rejected outright a blanket ban targeting all Muslims seeking entry to the United States.
In perhaps the most awkward part of the hearing, Sessions, who'd initially dismissed the seriousness of Trump's videotaped comments about grabbing women's vaginas, was forced into acknowledging that the behavior described by the president-elect amounted to sexual assault.