Facing an onslaught of negative ads targeting her nomination for the third-ranking position in the Justice Department, Vanita Gupta used her confirmation hearing Tuesday to apologize for past partisan-tinged tweets and assure GOP senators of her steadfast support for law enforcement.
In her opening statement, Gupta told the Senate Judiciary Committee she would "aggressively ensure that the Justice Department is independent from partisan influence," which she said was "part of a long tradition and ... vital to the fair administration of justice and preserving the public's trust and confidence in our legal system."
The committee's chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who noted Gupta's nomination has garnered widespread support from law enforcement organizations around the country despite misleading ads from groups like the Judicial Crisis Network suggesting she's hostile to police, asked Gupta up front whether she supported "defunding the police."
"I do not support defunding the police," Gupta said. "I have in fact spent my career advocating, where it's necessary, for greater resources for law enforcement and things like body-worn cameras, wellness and safety programs and any number of measures."
Asked about her past tweets where she had taken partisan stances and attacked GOP lawmakers, Gupta said she regretted the "harsh rhetoric that I have used at times for the last several years," making her the latest Biden nominee to back away from tweets now being used by Republicans to target her confirmation. Neera Tanden, facing backlash over her tweets, withdrew last week as Biden's pick to head the White House Office of Management and Budget.
"I think the rhetoric has gotten quite harsh over the last several years, and I have fallen prey to it, and I, I wish I could take it back. I can't," Gupta said. "But what I can commit to you and ask that you do is look at my lifelong record."
Durbin used his opening statement to preemptively defend Gupta's record and attack the million-dollar ad campaign taken out against her confirmation in addition to several attacks Republican senators on the committee have leveled against her.
"It is sad and pitiful, that this exceptional nominee has been targeted by a right-wing dark money organization, which is running television ads that make patently false claims," Durbin said in his opening statement. "I'm disappointed that some of my Senate colleagues are repeating the claims, and it is the height of irony that anyone would criticize this well-qualified Justice Department veteran after we sat silently by a while there was no Senate-confirmed Associate Attorney General for nearly three years during the Trump administration -- an unprecedented leadership vacuum."
The committee's ranking member, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, praised Gupta in his opening statement for her past work with him on issues like criminal justice reform, before immediately pivoting to attack what he described as her "partisan political advocacy" through her tweets and other public remarks.
"There's a lot to be concerned about in the weeks since President Biden took office," Grassley said. "We've seen stark changes to the Justice Department, suggesting a rapid return to the Holder era. We need to find out from the nominee if she'll help run the Justice Department for all Americans or be President Biden's per-se 'wing person."
Grassley's line of questioning focused on Gupta's previous associations with civil rights groups and what he described as "Big Tech" donors backing an ad campaign supporting her confirmation.
Gupta responding by again vowing to bring independence in her role and said that if confirmed she would "highly doubt" that Big Tech is excited about her nomination, vowing she will "bring the full force of our country's antitrust laws to bear" to protect competition in the tech sector.
Later, Sen. John Cornyn asked Gupta whether it was true "that you advocate decriminalization of all drugs."
"No, senator, I do not," Gupta replied.
In a later exchange, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., presented Gupta with a 2012 op-ed she wrote for Huffington Post in which she expressed support for states to decriminalize simple possession of all drugs -- accusing her of misleading the committee in her exchange with Cornyn.
"Senator I was not misleading," Gupta said. "I was speaking for my position today."
Pressed in one exchange by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah -- who noted that Gupta had previously drafted a letter in opposition to a Trump judicial nominee who had made controversial comments and Gupta described his subsequent apology as one of convenience rather than sincerity -- Lee asked whether that standard should apply to Gupta despite her apology today.
"I believe that people should be able to have second chances," Gupta said. "And so to the extent that a comment in the past about judicial nominees I believe that it was about substantive comments he had made in college writings. But as you know, maybe for my criminal justice work, I am a believer in second chances and redemption, and I would ask for that today."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was more confrontational in his description of Gupta's record -- calling her an "ideologue" and "extreme partisan advocate" who advocates for positions pushed by the "extreme left."
"I'm sorry you feel that way," Gupta said in response. "As a lifelong civil rights advocate my duty has been to enforce the Constitution, not enforce anyone's political agenda or partisan agenda."
Also testifying in the hearing was Lisa Monaco, President Biden's nominee for deputy attorney general, who brings to the job extensive past experience in the DOJ as a leader of the National Security Division as well as formerly serving as a career prosecutor and a senior official in the FBI.
In her opening statement, Monaco described the department as at an "inflection point" while its prosecutors work to bring those behind the Capitol insurrection to justice.
"Our response to the shocking events of January 6th, an attack that cut to our country’s core, and I know so personally affected many in this room, is nothing less than the defense of our democracy," Monaco said.
Asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., about the recent rise in attacks against Asian Americans, Monaco called it "a very pressing and concerning issue," telling senators the "first thing I would do is sit down with [FBI] Director Wray and understand what are the resources that the FBI has applied to these issues."