Sunday, 27 Sep 2020

What the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings reveal about Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris’s unsparing questioning of Brett Kavanaugh, when the then D.C. Circuit Court judge was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Trump, won the senator praise for her prosecutorial skill.

Critics at the time, however, said Harris’ treatment of Kavanaugh was an obvious and out-of-line attempt to raise her political profile. And now that Harris is the presumptive Democratic nominee for vice president, Trump has repeatedly attacked her approach to the Kavanaugh hearings. 

22 PHOTOSKamala Harris's 2020 presidential campaignSee GalleryKamala Harris's 2020 presidential campaignDAVENPORT, LOWA, UNITED STATES – 2019/07/16: United States Senator from California Kamala Harris hugs Kyrah Cortimiglia as she campaigns for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 United States presidential election at Friends of MLK during a round table discussion for women of color. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)DAVENPORT, LOWA, UNITED STATES – 2019/07/16: United States Senator from California Kamala Harris campaigns for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 United States presidential election at Friends of MLK during a round table discussion for women of color. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) speaks during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on Thursday, June 27, 2019, at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)MIAMI, FLORIDA – JUNE 27: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during a television interview after the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida.A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election, taking place over two nights at Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator for California Kamala Harris participates in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)(Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator for California Kamala Harris speaks to the press in the Spin Room after the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)Senator Kamala Harris addresses the crowd at the We Decide: Planned Parenthood Action Fund 2020 Election Forum to Focus on Abortion and Reproductive Rights event in Columbia, SC on June, 22 2019. – Many of the Democratic candidates running for president are in Columbia to make appearances at the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention and the Planned Parenthood Election Forum on June 22. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP)(Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)Supporters of US Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris attend a meet and greet at an historic home in Columbia, South Carolina on June 21, 2019. – Many of the Democratic candidates running for president are in Columbia to make appearances at the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention and the Planned Parenthood Election Forum on June 22. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP)(Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)US Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris speaks to a porch full of supporters at a meet and greet at an historic home in Columbia, South Carolina on June 21, 2019. – Many of the Democratic candidates running for president are in Columbia to make appearances at the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention and the Planned Parenthood Election Forum on June 22. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP)(Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)A supporter of US Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris attends a meet and greet at an historic home in Columbia, South Carolina on June 21, 2019. – Many of the Democratic candidates running for president are in Columbia to make appearances at the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention and the Planned Parenthood Election Forum on June 22. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP)(Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)A supporter of US Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris attends a meet and greet at an historic home in Columbia, South Carolina on June 21, 2019. – Many of the Democratic candidates running for president are in Columbia to make appearances at the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention and the Planned Parenthood Election Forum on June 22. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP)(Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)MSNBC – Election Coverage “The Last Word Town Hall with Lawrence O’Donnell and Kamala Harris” — Pictured: Kamala Harris — (Photo by: Liz Nemeth/MSNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)MSNBC – Election Coverage “The Last Word Town Hall with Lawrence O’Donnell and Kamala Harris” — Pictured: Kamala Harris — (Photo by: Liz Nemeth/MSNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)MSNBC – Election Coverage “The Last Word Town Hall with Lawrence O’Donnell and Kamala Harris” — Pictured: (l-r) Lawrence O’Donnell, Kamala Harris — (Photo by: Liz Nemeth/MSNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – APRIL 27:Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks at the National Forum on Wages and Working People: Creating an Economy That Works for All at Enclave on April 27, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Six of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are attending the forum, held by the Service Employees International Union and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, to share their economic policies.(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 05: Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks at the National Action Network convention on April 5, 2019 in New York City. A dozen 2020 Democratic presidential candidates will speak at the organization’s convention this week. Founded by Rev. Al Sharpton in 1991, the National Action Network is one of the most influential African American organizations dedicated to civil rights in America.(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! – “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EDT and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Tuesday, March 19, included Senator Kamala Harris (2020 Presidential Candidate), Mark Hamill (“Knightfall”), and musical guest Judah & the Lion. (Randy Holmes via Getty Images)SENATOR KAMALA HARRISNORTH LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 01:Attendees hold up campaign sign as U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (not pictured) speaks during a town hall meeting at Canyon Springs High School on March 1, 2019 in North Las Vegas, Nevada. Harris is campaigning for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president.(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NY – FEBRUARY 21: (L-R) 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)and Rev. Al Sharpton exit after having lunch at Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem, February 21, 2019 in New York City. According to Sharptons civil rights organization National Action Network, the two discussed criminal justice reform and other critical issues. Harris dined on a dish of chicken and waffles. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NY – FEBRUARY 21: (L-R) Rev. Al Sharpton and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) talk while having lunch at Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem, February 21, 2019 in New York City. According to Sharptons civil rights organization National Action Network, the two discussed criminal justice reform and other critical issues. Harris dined on a dish of chicken and waffles. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)US Senator from California, Kamala Harris, addresses the media January, 21 2019 at Howard University in Washington, DC after announcing earlier in the day that she is seeking to become the first African American woman to hold the office of US president, joining an already-crowded field of Democrats lining up to take on Donald Trump. – Harris joins Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and former housing secretary Julian Castro, among others, either in the race or exploring a run for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Nearly 22 months before the 2020 election, the battle for the White House is already firming up, as Americans begin to assess who might be the opposition party nominee to challenge Trump for control of the White House.Harris made the announcement on the national holiday honoring civil rights movement icon Martin Luther King Jr., whom she said her mother met. (Photo by EVA HAMBACH / AFP)(Photo credit should read EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images)GOOD MORNING AMERICA – Senator Kamala Harris announced she is running for president in 2020 today, Monday, January 21, 2019 on Walt Disney Television via Getty Images’s “Good Morning America.” “Good Morning America” airs Monday-Friday (7-9am, ET) on Walt Disney Television via Getty Images.(Photo by Lorenzo Bevilaqua/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS, GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ROBIN ROBERTSUp Next

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“She was extraordinarily nasty to Kavanaugh — Judge Kavanaugh then, now Justice Kavanaugh,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday during a briefing at the White House, not long after Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, announced Harris as his running mate. “She was nasty to a level that was just a horrible thing the way she was,” Trump said.

In an interview Thursday with Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo, Trump called Harris a “mad woman.” 

“Now you have a — sort of a mad woman, I call her, because she was so angry and so — such hatred with Justice Kavanaugh. I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it. She was the angriest of the group, and they were all angry.”

Harris’s role in the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings made headlines at the time. And, as Trump suggested, the response to it foreshadows the kind of attacks she’s likely to continue to face as Biden’s running mate.

“She understands how to ask probing questions. And how to put somebody in a position where they’re forced to answer, and if they can’t, that’s going to be revealed,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “It shows her objectiveness and skill. And I think many people saw that — part of why that [went] viral is because people are impressed.”

But, Dittmar adds, Harris’s viral glory happened within a partisan context.

“Democrats are particularly impressed because they feel that her skill has been [used] in a way that advances the Democratic argument in this case, which is to not support this justice,” Dittmar said. 

“Republicans, those who disagree with her, are obviously going to attack it. [But] because you can’t really attack it on the skill, you have to attack her on other things. To argue somehow that that’s inappropriate or that she’s nasty or she’s too aggressive.”

It’s been almost two years since the confirmation process for Kavanaugh began on Sept. 4, 2018. After addressing Kavanaugh’s legal beliefs and the sexual assault allegations against him, the Senate voted narrowly (50-48) to confirm Kavanaugh on Oct. 6, 2018. Harrisand every other Senate Democrat, with the exception of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, voted no. 

Harris vehemently opposed Kavanaugh’s nomination from the day it was announced. That opposition seemed to intensify during several days of questioning Kavanaugh over abortion rights and immigration, among other issues.

Notably, Harris asked Kavanaugh if he knew of any laws that give the government power to make decisions about the male body. Kavanaugh faltered in his response. That moment in particular helped catapult the first-term California senator to national attention. 

“I think she was one of the most effective questioners,” said Daniel Goldberg, the legal director for the Alliance for Justice Action Campaign. “And really, if you look back at her questioning of Brett Kavanaugh,” he told Yahoo News, “what’s stunning is how prescient she was.”

Goldberg points to several examples, including Harris’s focus on abortion. 

“She asked Brett Kavanaugh his views on critical reproductive rights, including whole women’s health — the abortion restrictions put in place in Texas,” Goldberg said, “and lo and behold, just last month he would have allowed Louisiana to burden women’s right to have an abortion and implement a law that would have shut down all but one clinic in the state.”

Tasha Philpot, a government professor at the University of Texas in Austin, said Harris seemed more “composed” than Kavanaugh during the hearings.

“But I think that’s part of a larger picture of Black women being viewed as you know, the angry Black woman,” Philpot said, “where any type of discontent at what’s going on is perceived as illegitimate. I thought her line of questioning and her tone were entirely appropriate for someone who would eventually receive a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.”

Both Philpot and Dittmar noted not just the stereotypical dynamics at play, but also the particular scrutiny that Harris — who also notably questioned former Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2017 and current Attorney General William Barr on the Senate Judiciary Committee last year — faces as a Black woman who is seemingly unafraid to both wield power and challenge it.

“Kamala Harris is only the second Black woman to serve in the Senate,” Philpot said. “So the image of her challenging the old white male guard is definitely something people aren’t used to seeing.”

How Harris’s strengths and vulnerabilities will resonate with voters remains to be seen. But Dittmar says voters who recoil at her assertiveness will have already been highly skeptical of the senator.

“It gets back to the, ‘I don’t like Hillary. I’m not sure why,’” she said. “In this case, what Trump and his team are doing are giving you a specific reason. But the root of it is your discomfort with a woman exercising power in that way. In a way that has been traditionally relegated to white men.” 

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