President Biden’s nominee for associate attorney general faced a barrage of questions having less to do with her work as a litigator than her politics, past and present.
WASHINGTON (CN) — Two women went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday afternoon to defend their qualifications to serve as U.S. attorney general and her second-in-command, but Republican scrutiny on one of the nominees largely monopolized the hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Senator Ted Cruz was perhaps the most combative of the committee members as he described Vanita Gupta as “an extreme partisan advocate.”
“As I look at your record on every single issue, the positions you’ve advocated for are on the extreme left,” he said, “and you’ve demonstrated an intolerance for and hostility to anyone who disagrees with the extreme left’s political positions.”
Meanwhile, among Democrats who praised Gupta’s record as a storied civil rights litigator, Senator Amy Klobuchar noted that she took it as “a point of extraordinary pride” to have qualified candidates like Gupta and Lisa Monaco, who has been nominated for deputy attorney general.
Klobuchar also noted that, despite his self-professed commitments to depoliticizing the Department of Justice, “Senator Cruz then embarked on asking the most partisan series of questions that we have heard to date in this room.”
In the months since President Joe Biden tapped her to lead the Justice Department, Gupta has largely walked back some of the political stances that so aggrieved members of the Senate today.
In one example of this, Senator John Cornyn asked if Gupta supported the decriminalization of all drugs and the elimination of qualified immunity from lawsuits against the police. After Gupta denied both stances, Senator Tom Cotton cited an editorial she penned for Huffington Post in 2012. It said: “States should decriminalize simply possession of all drugs, particularly marijuana, and for small amounts of drugs.”
“Why did you mislead Senator Cornyn?” Cotton asked. Gupta responded that she did not mislead the senator but had changed her stance since the editorial was published.
Later in the hearing, Senator Cory Booker invited Gupta to clear up her stance on implicit bias. It wasn’t that judges and police departments were inherently racist, he said, but that unexamined biases in the field led to disproportionate arrests and convictions. Gupta agreed.
Senators Marsha Blackburn and Thom Tillis both pulled up Twitter posts in which Gupta criticized sitting lawmakers like Senator Mitch McConnell and then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Blackburn asked if Gupta believed the three women who accused New York Governor Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment. Gupta would not get more specific in her response than to say that Cuomo should face a thorough investigation.
Throughout the hearing, Gupta spoke about her ambition to serve the department as a nonpartisan attorney. Repeatedly, she denounced claims that she believed in defunding the police or decriminalizing all drugs. And she vowed that if confirmed she would abandon the “harsh rhetoric” exhibited in her tweets.
Senate Democrats tended at the hearing to highlight Gupta’s record as a litigator and instances where she acted as a bridge between the left and right. Senator Chris Coons read letters in support of Gupta including one from Reagan-era Republican and conservative activist Grover Norquist, who called her an “honest broker.”
“Those don’t strike me as the sort of letters that would be received by an intolerant, radical activist,” Coons said.
Senator Tim Kaine called Gupta a “consensus builder” and “history maker,” citing her most famous case — in which 46 Black residents of Tulia, Texas, were arrested in a drug sting based on faulty evidence — as a record of her commitment to racial justice.
He also noted Gupta’s endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police, no small feat in partisan politics. Later, Senator Cotton asked whether perhaps the Fraternal Order only endorsed her out of fear of “retaliation.”
Ranking Member Chuck Grassley devoted his questions to Gupta’s experiences as an attorney and potential connections to Big Tech. A group called Defending Democracy Together took out an ad in her favor, he said, but the group is tied to eBay founder and billionaire philanthropist Pierre Omidyar.
“Why do you think Big Tech wants you to be in charge of the antitrust division?” the Iowa Republican asked.
While otherwise facing far fewer questions than were put to her fellow nominee, Lisa Monaco was praised at the hearing by Chairman Dick Durbin as among the most qualified individuals ever nominated to lead the Justice Department.
During his introduction, Senator Ed Markey described Monaco as “qualified, experienced and knowledgeable,” based on the past 15 years she spent navigating different positions in the Department of Justice. “President Biden could not have made a better choice for deputy attorney general,” he said.