Biden DOJ nominee apologizes for ‘harsh rhetoric’ amid GOP criticism

President Biden’s pick for the No. 3 position at the Department of Justice (DOJ) apologized on Tuesday for her past “harsh rhetoric” as she faced an icy reception from Senate Republicans over her civil rights legal work and advocacy.

GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee attacked Vanita Gupta, who was nominated for associate attorney general, at her confirmation hearing, seeking to paint her as an extremist, even as she touted bipartisan support from police unions and conservative figures.

Gupta expressed regret for some of her comments during the Trump era and pointed to her record in bringing together ideological rivals when she led the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division under the Obama administration.

“I regret the harsh rhetoric I have used at times in the last several years,” she told the committee. “I think perhaps the rhetoric has gotten harsh over the past several years and I have fallen prey to it.

“I wish I could take it back,” she continued. “I can’t, but what I can commit to you and ask that you do is look at my lifelong record. I have, from early on in my career, sought out people who don’t always think like me, people who have very different views, because I believe in the importance of consensus to get things done.”

Gupta also pushed back on Republicans’ efforts to paint her as having advocated for defunding the police, saying she understands the difficulty facing law enforcement officers and the resource constrictions their departments face.

“I do not support defunding the police,” she said. “I have, in fact, spent my career advocating where it’s been necessary for greater resources for law enforcement and things like body-worn cameras and officer wellness and safety programs and any number of programs.”

As the chief civil rights enforcer during the Obama administration, Gupta led federal investigations like the one into the Ferguson, Mo., police department following the 2014 police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Gupta appeared at her confirmation hearing alongside Lisa Monaco, whom Biden has nominated to be deputy attorney general, the No. 2 position at the DOJ. Monaco, who served as a high-ranking official in the Obama DOJ and White House, was largely spared the intense grilling that Republicans directed at Gupta on Tuesday.

If the two are confirmed, Gupta will oversee the DOJ’s civil law enforcement efforts and Monaco will oversee the department’s day-to-day operations.

Since leaving the Justice Department in 2017, Gupta has served as the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. While leading the group, she was an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s agenda and Senate Republicans’ efforts to jam through scores of controversial judicial nominees.

Throughout the hearing on Tuesday, Republicans brought up tweets in which Gupta criticized their work under the Trump administration and nominees for federal judicial seats, including Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

“Please understand what @senatemajldr is prioritizing this week: he’s moving forward on two partisan anti-abortion bills & more lifetime federal judges instead of holding votes on all of the important civil & human rights legislation already passed by the House. We won’t forget,” she wrote in a February 2020 tweet that was brought up by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

“Senate Republicans just confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court,” Gupta also tweeted in October of last year. “This entire rushed process – from selection to confirmation – is illegitimate, threatens core civil rights, and exposes the Republicans’ misplaced priorities. Our country deserves so much better.”

With Biden seeking to elevate her to the No. 3 job at the DOJ, Gupta has garnered endorsements from unexpected conservative groups and figures. She has received support from law enforcement organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, as well as Republican figures like the anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist and Michael Chertoff, who served as former President George W. Bush’s secretary of Homeland Security.

But it appears that the bipartisan backing has not extended to the Senate, where Gupta faced contentious questions from GOP members, who echoed criticisms that have been promoted by a multimillion-dollar advocacy campaign against her confirmation by right-wing groups like the Judicial Crisis Network. Democrats including Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (Ill.) referred to the opposition as a “smear campaign.”

“Your record is one of extreme partisan advocacy,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told her on Tuesday. “Your record is an ideologue. There’s a role in our democratic and political process for ideologues, people who are extreme, radical advocates. That role, I believe, is not being the number three lawyer at the Department of Justice in charge of the impartial and fair administration of justice.”

Democrats on the committee defended Gupta and hailed her as a champion of civil rights throughout her career.

“You’ve been the victim of a smear campaign,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said at the hearing. “A despicable, rancid campaign to discredit you, which I think is really regrettable, unfair, inaccurate.”

Before former President Obama appointed her to lead the DOJ’s civil rights division in 2014, Gupta worked as an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU.

“As a lifelong civil rights lawyer, I have committed my career to ensuring that the promises made in the Constitution are kept, and that our federal laws are fairly and impartially applied,” Gupta said in her opening statement. “If confirmed, I will aggressively ensure that the Justice Department is independent from partisan influence. That independence is part of a long tradition, and it is vital to the fair administration of justice and preserving the public’s trust and confidence in our legal system.”

The GOP’s strategy of homing in on Gupta’s past criticism of senators and judges comes after Neera Tanden, whom Biden had nominated to lead the Office of Management and Budget, withdrew from the confirmation process as a growing number of lawmakers expressed concern over her history of inflammatory tweets.

It’s unclear whether the Republican opposition to Gupta will be enough to imperil her confirmation. The Senate is expected to confirm D.C. Circuit Court Judge Merrick Garland as attorney general this week, after he was approved by the committee last week in a bipartisan 15-7 vote.

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Biden nominee Dick Durbin Joe Biden Merrick Garland Neera Tanden Ted Cruz Thom Tillis Vanita Gupta

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