Harris laid groundwork for VP nod with tough committee questions

Democratic vice presidential pick generated headlines from Senate hearings with a prosecutorial style that had a hard edge

Sen. Kamala Harris questions William Barr during his confirmation hearing to be U.S. attorney general on Jan. 15, 2019. (By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Kamala Harris questions William Barr during his confirmation hearing to be U.S. attorney general on Jan. 15, 2019. (By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 17, 2020 at 5:31am

California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris used pointed questions during high-profile Senate hearings and events in the past two years to raise her political profile, in moments that led presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to pick her as a running mate and President Donald Trump to call her a “mad woman” and “angry.”

Biden, in an event to introduce the former California state attorney general as his pick to be vice president last week, noted how Harris has been “asking tough questions that needed to be asked and not stopping until she got an answer. And when none was forthcoming, it was obvious what the answer was.”

That alluded to a series of exchanges with Trump officials that became made-for-social-media videos, which featured judicial nominees, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, current Attorney General William Barr and Trump’s appointment of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Trump told Fox Business last week that Harris is “sort of a mad woman, I call her, because she was so angry and so — such hatred with Justice Kavanaugh.”

That shows how well Harris, an attorney with plenty of litigation experience, leveraged her time in the Senate just as Biden used the Senate Judiciary Committee as a steppingstone for larger political ambitions — albeit in different ways.

Biden served as the committee’s chairman in a different era, which started when there were no female members or viral social media content, and he focused largely on legislation. Harris and Democrats have been in the minority for her entire tenure, so comments and questions at hearings became one of the best ways to showcase her qualities on a committee that oversees civil rights, voting rights, housing discrimination and other Justice Department enforcement efforts.

Critics of congressional committee hearings commonly say the lawmakers care less about getting information and more about creating moments for fundraising or to get noticed by voters.

As Biden's and Trump’s comments show, Harris got noticed. She generated plenty of headlines from high-profile hearings with a prosecutorial style that had a harder edge in comparison to many of her Democratic colleagues.

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“I’m not able to be rushed this fast,” Sessions replied at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing during Harris’ line of questioning on any Trump campaign contacts with Russia. “It makes me nervous.”

One of the biggest splashes, and one that highlighted her prosecutorial background, came during the confirmation hearings for Kavanaugh, Trump’s second pick for the Supreme Court.

Harris asked Kavanaugh if he ever had a conversation about former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into the 2016 election with anyone at a law firm started by Trump’s personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz.

The question made it seem as if Harris had some information that he had done so, and the setting made it seem as if what she found was a big deal. Kavanaugh apparently sensed a need for extra caution in his answer, appeared unsure and searched for a way to get Harris to divulge a bit more about what she was referring to.

“I’m asking you a very direct question, yes or no?” Harris said, and then fired away when Kavanaugh didn’t say yes or no.

“Are you saying that with all that you remember — you have an impeccable memory, you’ve been speaking for almost eight hours, I think more, about all sorts of things you remember — how can you not remember whether or not you had a conversation about Robert Mueller or his investigation with anyone at that law firm?” Harris said.

In the next few moments, Kavanaugh said: “I would like to know the person you’re thinking of because …”

Harris cut him off and raised speculation even more. “I think you’re thinking of someone and you don’t want to tell us,” Harris said.

It was enough that Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee jumped in to call the questioning “unfair” and defend why Kavanaugh might not answer the question — there are a lot of law firms and a lot of people who work at them.

When her questioning restarted, Harris asked more about whether he spoke with anyone regarding the Mueller investigation and said this: “I’ll ask again, I asked the question just a minute ago, I’m surprised you forgot.”

The exchange had social media buzzing about what information Harris might have. It turned out to be more of a bust, when Kavanaugh later said the answer was no, he hadn’t had any such conversation.

But the drama, and Harris’ leading role, was lasting.

Later in the hearing, on abortion, Harris asked Kavanaugh: “Can you think of any laws that give the government the power to make decisions about the male body?” When Kavanaugh paused, and then stammered a bit trying to answer, Harris said: “I’ll repeat the question.”

Kavanaugh eventually replied: “I’m not thinking of any right now, senator.”

In one round of questions in the confirmation hearing for Barr, Harris got the nominee to ask her to repeat a question: “Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested you open an investigation of anyone, yes or no please, sir?”

When Barr didn’t answer right away, Harris said, “Seems you’d remember something like that and be able to tell us?”

Barr replied: “Yeah but I’m trying to grapple with the word ‘suggest.’ There have been discussions of matters out there that, they have not asked me to open an investigation, but …”

Harris interjected: “Perhaps they’ve suggested? Hinted? Inferred? You don’t know?”

Harris later got Barr to commit to review the Justice Department’s position on the legality of the 2010 health care law, give Congress information on why the department curtailed its use of consent decrees to stop unconstitutional policing practices, meet with civil rights groups and make it part of his mission to ensure discriminatory voting laws don’t suppress votes.

“That was very efficient,” Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., remarked.

During the Trump impeachment trial in January, Harris sent a question to the House managers, which Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. had to read out loud. Roberts had to repeat Trump’s words from an old “Access Hollywood” tape in which he described sexually assaulting women.

“Before he was elected, President Trump said, quote, ‘When you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything,’ end quote,” Roberts read. “After he was elected, President Trump said that Article II of the Constitution gives him, quote, ‘the right to do whatever he wants as president,’ end quote.”

Then Harris’ question in one swoop made an argument and lobbed a softball question to House managers, while also referring to President Richard Nixon: “These statements suggest that each of them believed that the president is above the law, a belief reflected in the improper actions both presidents took to affect their reelection campaigns,” Roberts read. “If the Senate fails to hold the president accountable for misconduct, how would that undermine our system of justice?”

Now, Harris brings that sharp approach to Biden's campaign for the next few months.