Trump’s pick for Kavanaugh’s old court seat grilled over date-rape comments

Date rape was the main topic of debate Tuesday at a Senate confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughGrassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump The Hill's Morning Report — Category 5 Mueller storm to hit today On The Money: Cain 'very committed' to Fed bid despite opposition | Pelosi warns no US-UK trade deal if Brexit harms Irish peace | Ivanka Trump says she turned down World Bank job MORE's possible successor on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Neomi Rao, who serves as President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump Trump speaks to rebel Libyan general attacking Tripoli Dem lawmaker: Mueller report shows 'substantial body of evidence' on obstruction MORE’s regulatory czar, was grilled by Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee about controversial writings that surfaced after her nomination, namely a 1994 opinion piece for The Yale Herald in which she appeared to argue that women are partially to blame for sexual assault.

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Rao wrote at the time that if a woman “drinks to the point where she can no longer choose, well, getting to that point was a part of her choice.”

The Senate discussion, which was tense at times, came less than six months after the fierce debate over allegations that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted women decades ago. He has consistently denied those accusations.

Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay Ernst Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback Abrams: Schumer has been 'relentless but thoughtful' about Senate bid MORE (R-Iowa), a sexual assault survivor and the only GOP woman on the committee, said at Tuesday's hearing that Rao’s writings gave her pause.

“I’ve said time and time again that we need to change the culture around sexual violence, from our college campuses to the U.S. Olympic Committee to our military and beyond,” she said. “And a large part of this is ensuring that young women feel comfortable sharing the stories and experiences that they’ve endured and that they are given a chance to be heard.”

Ernst then asked Rao if she believes rape is wrong and who is at fault when a sexual assault occurs.

“A victim of a horrible crime is not to blame and the person who commits those crimes should be held responsible,” Rao said.

She added that she’s had a lot of experiences since college and wouldn’t express herself in the same way today.

Rao is administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a subagency tasked with reviewing and approving agency actions. She was confirmed by the Senate in July 2017 by a mostly party-line 54-41 vote.

The focus on her college writings come at a time when Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) faces mounting pressure to resign after a photo surfaced showing a man wearing blackface standing next to another person dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe on Northam's medical school yearbook page from 1984.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDurbin calls Mueller report findings on Trump team 'troubling' Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks McConnell: 'Past time' for immigration-border security deal MORE (D-Ill.) on Tuesday asked Rao about whether a person's actions from decades ago affect their ability to serve in public office.

“What do you think should be the level of accountability of a person seeking a position such as you are for the things that they’ve said and done even 20 years ago?” he asked.

Roa said it would be “presumptuous to comment on how this committee does its advice and consent function.”

Her college writings from 1994 to 1996, first reported by BuzzFeed News, also included reference to race as a “hot, money-making issue” and the fight for LGBT rights part of “trendy political movements.”

Rao told senators that she cringes when she looks back at some of the language she used.

“I was young. It’s over two decade ago now, but I think I was responding to things that were happening on campus at that time," she said. "And in the intervening two decades, I like to think that I have matured as a thinker and writer, and indeed as a person."

Several Republicans on the committee came to her defense.

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeDems sound alarm over top DOJ nominee Restore Pell Grant eligibility to people in prison Former Democratic aide pleads guilty to doxing GOP senators attending Kavanaugh hearing MORE (Utah) argued the standard should be whether her writings show an inability to be impartial.

“That’s not what we’re dealing with here,” he said, adding that people should be allowed to say they were young and saw things differently.

“Here’s the deeper issue: Judicial nominations have become a bloodsport, and we’ve convinced ourselves that because judges are important it’s all fair. And that’s not right and shouldn’t be the case here,” he said.

In her current role, Rao has been on the front lines of Trump’s push to roll back regulations, particularly those enacted during the Obama administration.

Her post is viewed as a red flag by Democrats, who expressed concern Tuesday that rules she worked to repeal could face legal challenges that end up before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The regional appeals court is viewed as the nation’s second most powerful due to the cases that come before it. The court hears challenges to regulatory actions taken by the federal government.

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFive takeaways from Mueller's report Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback MORE (D-Calif.), the committee’s ranking member, asked Rao to commit to recusing herself from all cases involving the Trump administration’s regulatory moves.

Rao said that if confirmed she would look carefully at the standards for recusal, consult with her colleagues and follow the precedent and practices of the D.C. Circuit.