Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFederal watchdog calls on Congress, Energy Dept. to overhaul nuclear waste storage process Senate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam Republicans caught in California's recall trap MORE (D-Calif.) is under pressure to take a hard line against President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE's pick to lead the CIA.
The 84-year-old senator has emerged as a key vote to watch during the looming fight over CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel’s nomination.
Feinstein — who is up for reelection in 2018 and facing a primary challenge from the left — took heat this week when she said that she was undecided on Haspel and described her as “good deputy director” at the spy agency.
“I have spent some time with her. We've had dinner together. We have talked. Everything I know is she has been a good deputy director. ... I think hopefully the entire organization learned something from the so-called enhanced interrogation program,” she said.
Progressives, including Feinstein’s top Democratic challenger, seized on the remarks as the latest sign that the decades-long lawmaker is out of touch with a party that is moving increasingly to the left.
Kevin de León, Feinstein’s rival, was quick to note that if he were in the Senate he would oppose Haspel’s nomination. He argued Feinstein should be “a leading voice rallying all Democrats against this nomination.”
“Having released a torture report, Feinstein knows better than most how morally and legally wrong torture is. This should be an easy call,” he said.
Feinstein and de León, president pro tempore of the California Senate, are battling it out ahead of a June primary that has captured national attention.
Though Feinstein continues to have a sizable lead in the polls, she failed to garner the 60 percent required to secure the California Democratic Party’s endorsement during last month’s caucus.
Feinstein’s comments also put her at odds with outside groups, and members of her own caucus, who have urged opposition to Haspel because of her role in the George W. Bush administration's “enhanced interrogation techniques" — critics call it torture — in the post-9/11 era.
Kelly Magsamen of the Center for American Progress, a think tank closely aligned with the Democratic Party, said the Senate should reject Haspel’s nomination because she was “directly involved in one of the CIA’s darkest moments in history.”
“Some actions are so egregious that they are disqualifying for high office despite the individual’s other qualifications or experience,” said Magsamen, who is the think tank’s vice president for national security and international policy.
Faiz Shakir, the American Civil Liberties Union’s national political director, warned that his group is willing to target California voters with an “educational campaign” if Feinstein doesn’t speak out against Haspel.
“[Her comment] builds on the narrative that she’s totally out of touch with California values. She’s jeopardizing her credibility on this,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.
It’s not the first time Feinstein has come under fire from members of her own party.
Known for her old-school collegiality in an increasingly partisan Senate, Feinstein was booed during a town hall in San Francisco last year when she said she didn’t support a single-payer health-care system. People on hand for the event urged her to stand up more forcefully to the Trump administration.
Her neutrality to Haspel’s nomination is a reversal from 2013, when she blocked Haspel’s promotion to run clandestine operations at the CIA over her role in interrogations at a “black site” prison and the destruction of videotapes documenting the waterboarding sessions of an al Qaeda suspect there.
Feinstein also captured the national spotlight in 2014 when, as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she went head-to-head with the CIA, accusing the agency of spying on committee staff and releasing key findings and an executive summary of the panel's "torture report."
But where Feinstein comes down in the current fight over Haspel could turn out to be crucial to whether Haspel is ultimately confirmed to lead the CIA, where she would be the first female director.
Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 White House debates vaccines for air travel Senate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken MORE (R-Ky.) on Wednesday became the first Republican senator to announce that he will oppose Haspel’s nomination.
That potentially gives Democrats the chance to squash Trump’s pick if they can remain united — which remains far from certain.
With GOP Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainWhoopi Goldberg signs four-year deal with ABC to stay on 'The View' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Meghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden MORE (Ariz.) absent as he undergoes treatment for brain cancer, Paul’s opposition could create a 49-50 vote, leaving Republicans short of the tie they would need to let Vice President Pence step in and put Haspel over the top. McCain’s support for Haspel, if he were to return for vote, also isn’t guaranteed, given his long opposition to torture.
Asked who else would oppose Haspel, Paul name-dropped Feinstein, referencing her previous decision to block her advancement.
“We’ll see if she has the courage of her convictions to actually vote no,” he said.
In one potential boost for Haspel, ProPublica on Thursday evening retracted a report that she had been in charge of a secret CIA prison when an al Qaeda suspect was waterboarded dozens of times.
Haspel's role at the prison had been one of the factors cited by opponents of her nomination.
Feinstein isn’t the only Democratic senator who has appeared at least open to Haspel becoming the agency’s top spy.
Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerPanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Schumer announces Senate-House deal on tax 'framework' for .5T package MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, predicted she would have a “robust confirmation process” but noted he had a "very good working relationship with her.” And Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats' do-or-die moment Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Progressives push for fossil subsidy repeal in spending bill MORE (N.Y.) said he isn’t currently urging Democrats to oppose Haspel and CIA Director Mike PompeoMike PompeoRepublican lawmakers raise security, privacy concerns over Huawei cloud services WashPost fact-checker gives Pompeo four 'Pinocchios' for 'zombie' claim about Obama Iran deal Poll: Biden, Trump statistically tied in favorability MORE, who was nominated to lead the State Department.
But a growing number of Democrats from the Senate’s progressive wing — including Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs Panic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal MORE (Ore.), Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzPanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Hotel workers need a lifeline; It's time to pass The Save Hotel Jobs Act Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Scientists potty train cows to cut pollution MORE (Hawaii) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Warren11 senators urge House to pass .5T package before infrastructure bill Senate Democrats seeking information from SPACs, questioning 'misaligned incentives' UN secretary-general blasts space tourism MORE (Mass.) — are coming out in opposition to Haspel, while others have voiced concerns.
Feinstein, meanwhile, has defended her middle-of-the-road position on Haspel, telling reporters: “I need to have another long talk with Gina Haspel, and I will do that. I do not announce my position before the committee hearing.”
She did appear to try to harden her position on Thursday by releasing a letter to Pompeo and Haspel asking the agency to release any documents tied to Haspel’s involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program.
“My fellow Senators and I must have the complete picture of Ms. Haspel’s involvement in the program in order to fully and fairly review her record and qualifications,” Feinstein wrote.
She added Americans “deserve to know the actual role the person nominated to be the director of the CIA played in what I consider to be one of the darkest chapters in American history.”
Spokespeople for Feinstein didn’t respond to a question about when they decided to send the request.
Shakir, reacting to Feinstein’s letter, called it a “good start at recalibrating her position.”
- Updated at 12:24 p.m.