Responding to what Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) described as “softball questions” aimed at heading off some GOP criticism of her, Gupta insisted 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.
Gupta didn’t specifically identify which tweets she regrets. But GOP lawmakers accused her of wanting to “defund the police” — a position Gupta says she rejects — and criticized her for a 2012 call to decriminalize possession of all illegal drugs, a position she says she no longer holds.
Democrats said the criticism of Gupta amounted to bad-faith attacks to damage a qualified nominee. “You’ve been the victim of a smear campaign, a despicable and rancid campaign to discredit you,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
Gupta described herself as “a lifelong idealistic civil rights lawyer” who is also “a deeply pragmatic person and a relationship builder.”
She testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee alongside Lisa Monaco, Biden’s nominee for the second-ranking position at DOJ. The Senate is expected to confirm attorney general nominee Merrick Garland to the DOJ top post in a Wednesday vote.
Though Monaco’s designated position is more senior than Gupta’s, Republicans trained most of their energy on Gupta, a prominent advocate for progressive police reform and civil rights. The GOP scrutiny of Gupta’s social media habits echoed senators’ criticisms of fiery tweets from Neera Tanden that last week helped sink her nomination to become Biden’s budget chief.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) sparred with Gupta over her past statements, although without publicly reading or describing any specific comment she had made. He suggested she was asking for forgiveness for her overheated rhetoric while denying such understanding to nominees she opposed as a civil rights advocate, including Ryan Bounds, an Oregon lawyer President Donald Trump nominated to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017.
Trump pulled Bounds’ nomination the following year after Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) joined Democrats in expressing concern about the lawyer’s college writings against “race-thinking groups [which] divide up by race for their feel-good ethnic hoedowns.”
After Gupta apologized again for her “coarse language” and asked senators to consider her broader record, Lee said: “I would love to know how that is different from Ryan Bounds. Ryan Bounds gave us almost exactly the same answer. … Does that standard also apply to you?”
“I am a believer in second chances and redemption, and I would ask for that today,” Gupta replied.
Gupta, currently the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also denied claims that her past police reform efforts amounted to an attempt to defund law enforcement.
“I do not support defunding the police,” she said. “I have spent my career, where it has been necessary for greater resources for law enforcement and things like body-worn cameras as well as officer wellness and safety programs.”
The White House and Senate Democrats have loudly touted Gupta’s endorsements from police groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the moderate face Gupta was putting forward at the hearing clashed with what he called her “almost unbroken record of partisan culture war that is in your resume.”
The ranking Republican on the panel, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said early in the hearing that he was troubled by a Gupta tweet in which she said of the 2020 Republican National Convention: “Don’t know if I can take three more nights of racism, xenophobia, and outrageous lies.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) also cited a few tweets she found objectionable, including one criticizing Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in 2018 when she announced plans to vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
“Senator Collins is failing her constituents and sending a dangerous message to survivors. This is excruciating,” Gupta wrote in one message.
Blackburn also noted that during the controversy over sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh, Gupta said, “Believe survivors.” The senator asked if that applied to the women who have made allegations of sexual harassment or impropriety against Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) in recent days, but Gupta would not say if she believes those who have leveled claims against Cuomo.
“On Gov. Cuomo’s allegations, the investigation by the attorney general is ongoing, and I believe it’s appropriate,” Gupta said.
“So, you don’t have an opinion like you had an opinion back in 2018? “Blackburn said. “You’ve been posting about believing women over and over since the #MeToo movement started…To me, it seems a little hypocritical to say the least.”
“I believe survivors should be heard,” Gupta said.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who said he is a personal friend of Gupta, came to her defense later in the hearing. The senator said Gupta had worked hard to find Republican allies on issues like criminal justice reform.
“Never have I ever heard you disparage in any way members of the other side of the aisle,” Booker said.
Booker also led a brief soul-searching session about the impact of Twitter on political dialogue. “I do wonder about what Twitter has done to our culture and the snarkiness it seems to breed,” the senator said.
“To be honest with you, I do think that Twitter has been incredibly polarizing. I’ve played a role in it,” Gupta replied. “It does reward snark and polarization.” She said that, if confirmed, “you’ll be happy to know I won’t be tweeting in that way.”
Gupta promised to be a champion of access to the ballot box if confirmed. She endorsed the House-passed voting rights bill that is expected to become a flashpoint as the Senate weighs the future of the legislative filibuster, which likely means the measure would need 10 Republican votes to pass.
Following the storming of the Capitol in January by insurrectionists who included white supremacists and militia members, DOJ’s efforts to combat right-wing extremist groups is also under fresh scrutiny. Monaco said near the outset of her testimony that the problem has grown worse.
“Unfortunately and concerningly, the domestic terrorism threat is one that is metastasizing across the country,” she said.
Monaco also vowed that if confirmed, she would direct all needed resources to the investigation of the assault on the Capitol and seek to understand the root causes of “such an attack that I personally never thought we would see in my lifetime.”