Politics

Kamala Harris Aims for Influence as a Check on Trump

Even as a freshman, Calif. Democrat has started Senate career with a bang

California Sen. Kamala Harris has been sharply critical of President Donald Trump’s recent actions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

By NIELS LESNIEWSKI and BRIDGET BOWMAN

Donald Trump received less than a third of the votes cast for president by California voters, and that’s something the state’s new senator, Kamala Harris, is well aware of.

Harris, the former state attorney general, had already spoken up on the Senate floor against the nominations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos by the time she gave her more traditional “maiden speech” Thursday. The freshman Democrat started by recounting how her mother, an Indian immigrant, chose to marry her Jamaican father in the U.S. instead of returning to India for an arranged marriage.

“This act of self-determination made my sister Maya and myself, and it made us Americans, like millions of immigrants before and since,” Harris said. “I know she’s looking down on us today. And, knowing my mother, she’s probably saying, ‘Kamala, what on earth is going on down there?’”

Harris then took aim squarely at Trump’s recent executive actions on immigration, as well as increased raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to arrest undocumented immigrants.

“In the early weeks of this administration, we have seen an unprecedented series of executive actions that have hit our immigrant and religious communities like a cold front striking a chilling fear in the hearts of millions of good, hard-working people,” Harris said.

She drew upon her experience as a prosecutor, saying, “I know what a crime looks like and I will tell you an undocumented immigrant is not a criminal.”

Along with immigration, Harris is also likely to spend much of her time focused on intelligence issues as a freshman member who holds a seat on the often-secretive Intelligence Committee.

She sought a seat on the panel, according to a person familiar with her appointment, the only freshman in either party serving on the committee. She filled a vacancy on the Democratic side there created by the retirement of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland.

The Intelligence panel has been front and center as the main committee investigating allegations of Russian interference in the presidential election, and whether Trump officials were in contact with Russian spies. 

Though Harris did not mention her work on Intelligence, she used her first speech to call on her fellow senators to hold Trump accountable for his actions.

“We have a responsibility to draw a line with these administrative actions and say no,” she said. “And this is not a question of party. This is about a government of co-equal branches with its inherent checks and balances. This is about the role of the United States Senate, the greatest deliberative body in the world.”

Harris has not started her Senate career quietly.

During the debate on Sessions’ confirmation, Democrats needed someone to stand up and call for a vote on allowing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to speak, after being sanctioned for the offense of impugning Sessions’ integrity by reading criticisms from Coretta Scott King and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. That someone was Harris. 

She has already appeared at a rally outside the White House protesting the temporary ban on entry from the seven Muslim-majority countries, and she spoke at the women’s march the day after Trump took office.

The California Democrat has also been active in drafting letters and making calls to Trump administration officials — including those whose confirmations she opposed. Harris was among the 11 Democrats who voted against confirming John Kelly as secretary of Homeland Security.

She said she opposed Kelly because he would not provide assurances that the Trump administration would protect recipients of deferred immigration action by President Barack Obama from facing deportation.

After the issuance of the immigration executive order now blocked by federal courts that Trump has promised to revise and replace, Harris contacted Kelly.

“We have heard troubling reports of inconsistent and improper enforcement of the president’s Muslim ban,” Harris wrote to the DHS chief in late January. “You repeatedly assured me — in sworn testimony and in writing — that you would follow the laws of the United States. It appears this promise is in jeopardy of being broken a mere nine days since your confirmation as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.”

Harris said in her speech Thursday that her role as the “top cop” in California had provided her with the experience to evaluate the executive order.

“The president’s immigration actions and Muslim ban will make us less safe,” she said.

GOP Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who sat in the chamber during Harris’ remarks, said he hoped they could find common ground. He had developed a productive friendship with Harris’ predecessor, Sen. Barbara Boxer, even though they were on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. 

When it came to Harris’ remarks on the importance of the rule of law and religious freedom, Inhofe said, “I agree.”

Around a dozen of Harris’ Democratic colleagues, who sat and listened to her maiden speech, approached her afterward to congratulate her.

As Democrats made their way to her desk, one senator was overheard remarking, “Good message.”

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