Vanita Gupta, the widely-praised civil rights attorney who President Biden has picked to serve as associate attorney general, fielded claims from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) Tuesday that she was an “extreme radical advocate” and an “ideologue” who had no business leading the department.”
“The positions you have advocated for are on the extreme left and you have demonstrated an intolerance for and hostility to anyone that disagrees with the extreme left political positions,” Cruz said.
“I am sorry you feel that way,” Gupta responded, while defending her record as being focused on protecting the Constitution.
Gupta, who is testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee alongside Lisa Monaco, Biden’s choice for deputy attorney general, has been the target by attack ads run by the Judicial Crisis Network, a right-wing group that supports Republican judicial nominations. The ads have sought to paint Gupta as an anti-cop radical, mischaracterizing her past remarks to assert that she supports defunding the police.
In fact, Gupta has the support of several law enforcement groups, including a police union that endorsed President Trump. She has also received support from other conservative activists.
Cruz’s remarks escalated what had been tough but measured questioning from the other Republicans on the panel. At one point, Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) interrupted Cruz to ask that he let her fully answer his questions.
“I understand that she has things that she wants to say,” Cruz sniped, while accusing her of dodging his question on religious liberty law. “I am asking a question and she is giving a speech.”
Cruz grilled Gupta on her positions on religious freedom laws, abortion rights and the defund the police movement. Gupta said that she disagreed with how Cruz was characterizing her past remarks on funding priorities. She said that her conversations with law enforcement had informed her belief that the police have been tasked with dealing with too many social issues.
The turbulence Gupta would face in her confirmation hearing was signaled from the very beginning. Durbin noted in his opening remarks that she had been the target of misleading ads, part of what Durbin described as a “sad and pitiful” campaign. Durbin said he was “disappointed” that some of his Republican colleagues had embraced the false claims against her.
Ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-IA) acknowledged that law enforcement groups were backing her in his opening statement but said that Gupta still had her “work cut out” for her in convincing Republicans she would work for all Americans in the DOJ role. He zeroed in on a tweet she posted criticizing Republicans, as well as the advocacy she did opposing certain Trump judicial nominees, during which, Grassley said, she signed on to “salacious” oppo drops.
Given the opportunity by Durbin to address the concerns Grassley raised in his opening, Gupta said she had regrets about the “harsh rhetoric” and that she wished she could take it back, while urging senators to look at her “lifelong record” of seeking to work with people who have different views than her.
Several Republicans returned to the tweets and her current disavowal of them.
They repeatedly suggested that Gupta was asking the committee to apply a double standard, because, as the head of the civil rights group the Leadership Conference, she had asked the Senate not to confirm Ryan Bounds, one of President Trump’s judicial nominees, in part because of his controversial college writings.
When Gupta asked Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) to look at her full record when considering her remorse for her past remarks, he pushed back: “I would love to know how that is different than Ryan Bounds.”
Multiple Republican senators also focused on her stance on drug criminalization. It came up first in a question from Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), to which Gupta replied that she did not support decriminalization of all drugs, but, rather, was in favor of decriminalizing marijuana possession.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), pointing to a 2012 op-ed she wrote asking states to consider decriminalizing marijuana as well as other drugs, accused her of misleading the committee with her answer to Cornyn.
“I was not misleading, I was speaking for my position today,” Gupta said, adding that time she spent in DOJ during the end the Obama administration had informed her thinking on the issue.
Gupta repeatedly refused to play along with the left-wing caricature that Republicans were trying to create of her. When Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) tried to pin her down as anti-death penalty, Gupta acknowledged that she had advocated against capital punishment. But, she noted, when she was last at the department, prosecutors under her watch sought the death penalty for Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who massacred a Black church.
“My personal opinions on things take second place to the Constitution and federal law,” she said, describing how she views of her role at the DOJ.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) asked her to explain how her stated support for “reducing the footprint” of police is different than defunding the police, suggesting that the former was just a more “eloquent” way of saying the latter.
Gupta, thanking him for the question, calmly explained the approach she had already laid out in the hearing. She thought there should be a focus on violent crime, she said, while mental health and community-based treatment support services should be made more available so its not up to cops to confront those who are struggling with substance abuse and mental health crises. She also noted that she had called for increased resources for law enforcement.