Sessions faces the big question at his confirmation hearing: Is he a racist?

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 chief.

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, Alabama, 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.

“Clearly, it would be,” Sessions said.

Sessions also assured the committee that he was capable of enforcing laws even if he’d voted against them or if they violated his personal beliefs. Variations of this line came up in questioning over states’ rights in marijuana legalization, using hate-crime laws in cases involving LGBT victims and many other hot-button issues.

The overarching question, however, was about race, specifically whether a controversial figure like Sessions could be an effective attorney general at a time marked by rising racial tensions and deep fears among minority communities.

Sessions said his provenance (Alabama) and “Southern name” (he’s named after two Confederate icons) contributed to the persistent labeling of him as a racist.

Sessions specifically addressed allegations that had surfaced in hearings before the same committee 30 years ago, when he failed to win confirmation for a federal judgeship. At the time, claims were aired that he’d addressed a black colleague as “boy,” that he’d painted a white civil rights attorney as a race traitor and that he’d criticized civil rights groups as trying to “force civil rights down the throats of people who were trying to put problems behind them.”

Sessions called the claims “damnably false.”

“This caricature of me from 1986 is not correct,” he said.

Such are the charges against him that Sessions felt compelled to go so far as to publicly disavow the KKK. An oft-repeated story, another product of the 1980s confirmation attempt, says Sessions once joked that he’d been OK with the Klan until he learned that members smoked marijuana. Sessions forcefully rejected the idea that he harbors any sympathies whatsoever for the KKK.

“I abhor the Klan and what it represents and its hateful ideology,” Sessions told the committee.

Throughout the hearing, Sessions and his supporters touted his oversight of a high-profile prosecution of two Alabama Klan members who lynched a 19-year-old African-American man in 1981.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, revived talk of the KKK trial in the last hour of the daylong hearing. Cruz lectured the news media for failing to cover how Sessions had gone after the Klansmen by supporting moves that ultimately bankrupted the group. Cruz congratulated Sessions for not pulling punches in his handling of the case.

An in-depth look into the case by The Atlantic, however, suggests that Sessions has inflated his role.

At the hearing, Sessions was similarly accused of embellishing his civil rights record. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., hammered Sessions about holes in claims that he’d “personally” handled desegregation and other civil rights cases; attorneys on the cases have said publicly that Sessions lied about or exaggerated his involvement.

Franken got Sessions to admit that his boast of handling “20 or 30” desegregation cases was wrong. Sessions acknowledged that the real number was far lower, explaining that he’d miscounted because some cases were quickly resolved or had begun before his tenure.

One quick moment of the hearing encapsulated the divide between Sessions and his critics from the civil rights community: He used the past tense to describe the systematic racial discrimination that his opponents say they’re still fighting today. Sessions said he had “no doubt it existed in a systematic, powerful and negative way.”

Sessions’ opening statement was repeatedly interrupted by protesters chanting, “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!” A woman from Code Pink, an advocacy group known in Washington for disrupting congressional hearings, was led out by police officers as she shouted “You’re a pig! Stop this fascist pig from getting into power!” Within the first hour of Sessions’ hearing, seven protesters had been led out of the hearing room by Capitol police, including the ones in KKK hoods.

At one point, Sessions was asked how being labeled a racist made him feel.

“It does not feel good,” he replied.

Before he could continue, he was interrupted by another round of protests.

Sean Cockerham contributed to this report.

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam