Senate Republicans took aim at associate attorney general nominee Vanita Gupta’s past tweets at a contentious confirmation hearing Tuesday, where Gupta was pressed on her previous comments and whether she supports defunding the police and decriminalizing drugs.
The pointed questions directed at Gupta came as a conservative judicial group launched an ad campaign to try to defeat her nomination, while she touted the backing of numerous law enforcement organizations. Gupta is the latest non-White Cabinet nominee of President Joe Biden who’s faced intense pushback from Republicans, following the pulling of Neera Tanden’s nomination to be Biden’s budget chief and Republican senators slowing the confirmations of Health and Human Services secretary nominee Xavier Becerra and interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland.
Gupta apologized for her prior tweets directed at Republicans, saying at Tuesday’s hearing that she wished she could take back the harsh rhetoric. She vowed to take a nonpartisan approach to the No. 3 position at the Justice Department if she’s confirmed.
“I regret the harsh rhetoric that I have used at times in the last several years,” Gupta said. “I can pledge to you today that if I am confirmed, you won’t be hearing that kind of rhetoric for me.”
The Republican criticism of Gupta’s tweets follows their successful efforts to sink Tanden’s nomination to be Biden’s budget chief. Tanden withdrew her nomination last week after her path to confirmation in the 50-50 Senate was closed off by West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition.
The Judicial Crisis Network, a group that’s fought to confirm conservative judges, announced Tuesday a $1 million ad campaign against Gupta’s nomination, accusing her of a “dark money assault on the Supreme Court” while she led the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s top Republican, argued that Gupta’s tweets are relevant given that the position she’s been nominated for is nonpartisan.
“Ms. Gupta has in fact launched Twitter attacks on some (Republicans) directly,” Grassley said. “Will that kind of partisan political advocacy affect her legal advocacy in a role where she represents all Americans?”
Democrats defended Gupta, who led the Justice Department civil rights division in the Obama administration, accusing Republicans of distorting Gupta’s views.
“Ms. Gupta, you’ve been a victim of a smear campaign, a despicable and rancid campaign to discredit you,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, charged that her Republican colleagues were guilty of “mansplaining” Gupta’s positions on race and policing.
After Gupta was accused by Republicans of supporting defunding the police – which she said she did not – Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware read from letters by law enforcement groups supporting her nomination, as well as conservatives like Grover Norquist, the fiscal conservative who worked with Gupta on criminal justice reform.
In her opening statement, Gupta cited letters of support from the National Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the National Sheriffs’ Association.
Gupta, who if confirmed would be the first woman of color to be associate attorney general, testified alongside Lisa Monaco, who has been nominated to be deputy attorney general. Monaco, who was homeland security adviser to President Barack Obama, faced some questions from Republicans, but the most pointed exchanges were reserved for Gupta.
Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, questioned Gupta’s previous testimony as an advocate that everyone has biases, before trying to rebut criticism that the opposition to Tanden was motivated by racism and sexism.
He asked Gupta whether her organization’s opposition to several non-White Trump judicial nominees was due to race, and she said it was not.
“So it’s your position, then, you can oppose someone’s nomination on the merits, without immediately and justly being accused of being racist or sexist because of their race or their sex?” Cotton asked, before turning back to Manchin’s opposition of Tanden.
“Some people accuse of Joe Manchin of being racist and sexist for opposing Neera Tanden’s nomination. Can you oppose, can you oppose the nomination of a woman or a racial minority on the merits, without being racist or sexist?” Cotton continued.
“Yes,” Gupta responded.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, accused Gupta of being an “extreme partisan advocate” and an ideologue, peppering her with questions on abortion rights, the Second Amendment and whether she supported defunding the police.
Cruz and other Republicans pointed to Gupta’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee as an advocate last year, in which she said she supported reallocating resources so there were alternatives to law enforcement handling issues like mental health problems. Cruz argued her comments amounted to support of defunding the police.
“Respectfully, I disagree with how you’re characterizing that. I don’t support defunding the police. I’ve been very clear about that,” Gupta said, pointing to her support from sheriffs and arguing that providing alternatives to families in crisis united law enforcement with civil rights advocates.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, questioned Gupta on whether she supported the decriminalization of small possession of all drugs, as Republicans pointed to a 2012 op-ed she had written. Gupta responded that she did not support decriminalizing all drugs, only marijuana possession, saying her position had “evolved” since the time she had written the article.
Gupta isn’t likely to be the only Justice Department nominee to face sharp questions from Republicans. At Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland’s confirmation hearing last month, Republicans asked Garland about both Gupta and Kristen Clarke, Biden’s nominee to be the head of the Civil Rights Division, whose hearing has not yet been scheduled.
CNN’s Alex Rogers, Jessica Schneider, Daniella Mora and Sydney Walton contributed to this report.