- In the confirmation hearing of Biden’s nominee for Associate Attorney General, hyper partisan senators like Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton grill her on police defunding, drug decriminalization, racism and her past tweets.
Republican Senators grilled Vanita Gupta, President Joe Biden’s nominee for Associate Attorney General, on her opinions on police funding, race and liberty, during her confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 9, alongside Lisa Monaco, Biden’s choice for Deputy Attorney General. Painting Gupta as a hypocrite and a ‘left activist,’ they accused her for supporting to defund the police, which she denies, and criticized her for an earlier call to decriminalize possession of all illegal drugs, a position she says she no longer agrees with.
Though Monaco’s designated position in the Department of Justice is more senior than Gupta’s, Republicans focused most of their attention on Gupta, and sparred with her on her past tweets, editorials, and testimonies. If confirmed, Gupta would serve as the first woman of color in the post, and would oversee the department’s civil and human rights divisions, as well as antitrust, environmental, grant-making and community policing matters. The Senate is expected to confirm Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland on March 10.
Gupta, 48, previously led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Obama. She recently served as president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights coalition to promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States.
Throughout the hearing, Gupta calmly weathered the vitriol coming her way, and defended her record as a lifelong civil liberty advocate, a consensus builder, a bridge builder. Accompanying her was her husband, Chinh Q. Le, legal director of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia; and their two sons, Chetan and Rohan.
While Gupta was targeted by all Republican senators, the harshest remarks came from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who called Gupta an “extreme left activist, an “extreme radical advocate” and an “ideologue,” who had “no business leading the department.” Gupta responded: “I am sorry you feel that way.”
At a point when Cruz was questioning Gupta on her opinions on religious freedom laws, abortion rights and the defund the police movement, Equality Act, he was interrupted by Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), asking him to let Gupta fully answer his questions. “I understand that she has things that she wants to say,” Cruz retorted, adding that he’s asking her questions and she’s giving a speech.
Gupta was also questioned on her stance on drug criminalization. When Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) asked Gupta if she supported decriminalization of all drugs, she affirmed in the negative. However, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), pointed to a 2012 op-ed she wrote asking states to consider decriminalizing marijuana as well as other drugs. He accused her of misleading the committee with her answer to Cornyn. “I was not misleading, I was speaking for my position today,” Gupta said. She said the time she spent in the DOJ during the end the Obama administration had changed her thinking on the issue.
Cotton also pressed Gupta on a testimony she gave last summer where she said she believes that all Americans have “implicit bias and racial bias.” Asked if she harbored biases to any particular race, Gupta replied: “We all have implicit bias. That does not mean we harbor any racism at all, but there are unconscious assumptions and stereotypes” she responded. “I hold stereotypes I have to manage. I am a product of my environment. It’s part of the human condition.” Cotton was referring to remarks made by Gupta before the Senate on a panel of civil rights advocates last summer during the protests over the killing of George Floyd. Gupta’s Senate confirmation hearing coincided with jury selection in the trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in George Floyd’s murder trial.
Gupta’s past tweets were also held against her doing her testimony. Sen Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), read aloud past posts from Gupta’s Twitter feed in which she assailed Republicans, and accused her of “excessive partisanship.” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) read a tweet from 2018 in which Gupta said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) had failed her constituents and was “sending a dangerous message” to sexual assault survivors by supporting then-President Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Gupta apologized for her tweets. “I regret the harsh rhetoric that I have used at times in the last several years,” she said. In another instance, she said: “I think the rhetoric has gotten quite harsh over the last several years and I have fallen prey to it. I wish I could take it back. I can’t,” she said. “I can pledge to you today that if I am confirmed, you won’t be hearing that kind of rhetoric from me.”
Referring to Gupta’s past social media posts, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) referred to the time when, as head of the Leadership Conference, she had opposed the confirmation of Ryan Bounds, one of President Trump’s judicial nominees. At the time Gupta said her opposition to Bounds was due to his controversial college writings. When asked if she was asking the committee to apply a double standard, Gupta requested the senator look at her full record. “I would love to know how that is different from Ryan Bounds,” he asked. To which she replied, “I am a believer in second chances, and redemption,” Gupta replied. “And I would ask for that.” She said her partisan comments on social media haven’t prevented her from finding common ground with a diverse group of advocates on a range of issues.
The GOP criticism of Gupta’s social media posts harks back to the scrutiny of tweets by Neera Tanden, who withdrew her nomination to head the Office of Management and Budget.
The resistance Gupta would face from Republicans in her confirmation hearing was addressed at the very beginning by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In his opening remarks, Durbin noted how Gupta has been a target of misleading ads. Calling the campaign “sad and pitiful,” he expressed disappointment that some of his Republican colleagues had embraced the false claims against her.
Last month, Gupta came under attack from the Judicial Crisis Network, “a deeply conservative organization,” which launched a “$800,000 ad campaign,” and from the Conservative Action Project. To counter that attack, Gupta has received support from Defending Democracy Together, a group of prominent anti-Trump conservatives who is launching a $1 million ad campaign. She has the support of several law enforcement groups. She has also received support from other conservative activists.
During her testimony, when asked by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to speak on how her family influenced her to choose a path of civil rights and justice, Gupta fought back tears to speak of her parents. “I am deeply grateful and proud of my father and my mother,” [Rajiv and Kamala Gupta], she said, adding that her father “is the most humble person in the world.” She said her parents love this country and raised two daughters to go into public service. Noting that she wants to give her parents “a life of honor,” she said she is “blessed to have the parental embrace,” and wants to “pay it forward and live up to the ideals of the Constitution.”
In her opening remarks, she expressed gratitude to her sister and her family, and to her parents, who are watching on C-SPAN. “My parents are proud immigrants from India, and they believe more than anything in the promise of America,” she said. “Growing up, they taught me that loving this country brings with it the obligation to do the necessary work to perfect our union. That belief is shared by my husband, whose family fled violence and war in Vietnam and sought refuge on these great shores.”
She said it is because of this nation’s welcome and her parent’s sacrifice that she sits before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Only one agency in our federal government bears the name of a value. By virtue of that name — that value of justice — we know the Department carries a unique charge and North Star. It is the sacred keeper of the promise of equal justice under the law. If confirmed as Associate Attorney General, I pledge to this Committee and the American people that I will act for justice every day.”
She highlighted her work in Tulia, Texas, shortly after graduating law school, in which she represented 38 people wrongly convicted in a drug case and helped get them a pardon from then-Republican Gov. Rick Perry. “From that early experience on, I have spent my career dedicated to making real the promise of our federal laws and Constitution — and leading with my long-held conviction that addressing difficult problems requires building consensus.”
Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.