Donald Trump’s nominee for US attorney general denied being a racist on Tuesday and promised to act as a restraint on the president-elect, as protesters began disrupting the transition of power in Washington.

He described allegations of bigotry that have dogged his career as “damnably false charges” during a confirmation hearing that was repeatedly interrupted by demonstrators chanting: “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.”

“I abhor the Klan and what it represents, and its hateful ideology,” Sessions told the Senate judiciary committee. He pledged as America’s top law enforcement official to protect “our African American brothers and sisters” as well as the rights of LGBT people and women.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s most senior Democrat, told Sessions that there were “deep concerns and anxieties” among some Americans about Trump’s agenda, which includes a crackdown on illegal immigration and return to “tough on crime” policing.

“Communities across this country are concerned about whether they will be able to rely on the Department of Justice to protect their rights and freedoms,” said Feinstein. Protesters were forcibly removed from the hearing at several points.

Sessions, who would serve a president who campaigned on a promise to “lock up” Hillary Clinton, also promised to recuse himself from any justice department investigations of the defeated Democratic candidate due to his past political remarks.

“This country does not punish its political enemies, but this country ensures that no one is above the law,” said Sessions. Trump led campaign rallies in frenzied chants calling for Clinton’s prosecution for using a private email server while secretary of state. Asked if he ever joined in the chants of “lock her up,” Sessions said: “No, I did not … I don’t think.”

 

Despite having voted last year against a measure outlawing a ban on people entering the US based on their religion, Sessions also cast further doubt on the future of Trump’s campaign pledge to bar all Muslims from coming into the country.

Sessions said that while he believed that “many people do have religious views that are inimical to the public safety of the United States”, at the same time, “I have no belief, and do not support the idea, that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States.”

Since proposing a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” in December 2015, Trump has taken a variety of different stances on the subject, most often saying he would restrict the ban to people arriving from countries affected by terrorism.

Sessions promised that despite his personal opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, he would respect rulings by the US supreme court protecting both.