What the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings reveal about Kamala Harris

Crystal Hill
·Reporter
·5 min read

Kamala Harris’s unsparing questioning of Brett Kavanaugh when the then D.C. Circuit Court judge was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Trump won the senator praise for her prosecutorial skill.

Critics at the time, however, said Harris’s treatment of Kavanaugh was an obvious and out-of-line attempt to raise her political profile. And now that Harris is the presumptive Democratic nominee for vice president, Trump has repeatedly attacked her approach to the Kavanaugh hearings.

“She was extraordinarily nasty to Kavanaugh — Judge Kavanaugh then, now Justice Kavanaugh,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday during a briefing at the White House, not long after Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, announced Harris as his running mate. “She was nasty to a level that was just a horrible thing the way she was,” Trump said.

In an interview Thursday with Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo, Trump called Harris a “mad woman.”

“Now you have a — sort of a mad woman, I call her, because she was so angry and so — such hatred with Justice Kavanaugh. I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it. She was the angriest of the group, and they were all angry.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens to Christine Blasey Ford testify during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, focusing on allegations of sexual assault by Kavanaugh against Christine Blasey Ford in the early 1980s. (Tom Williams/Pool Photo via AP)
Sen. Kamala Harris during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. (Tom Williams/Pool Photo via AP)

Harris’s role in the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings made headlines at the time. And, as Trump suggested, the response to it foreshadows the kind of attacks she’s likely to continue to face as Biden’s running mate.

“She understands how to ask probing questions. And how to put somebody in a position where they’re forced to answer, and if they can’t, that’s going to be revealed,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “It shows her objectiveness and skill. And I think many people saw that — part of why that [went] viral is because people are impressed.”

But, Dittmar added, Harris’s viral glory happened within a partisan context.

“Democrats are particularly impressed because they feel that her skill has been [used] in a way that advances the Democratic argument in this case, which is to not support this justice,” Dittmar said.

“Republicans, those who disagree with her, are obviously going to attack it. [But] because you can’t really attack it on the skill, you have to attack her on other things. To argue somehow that that’s inappropriate or that she’s nasty or she’s too aggressive.”

It’s been almost two years since the confirmation process for Kavanaugh began on Sept. 4, 2018. After addressing Kavanaugh’s legal beliefs and the sexual assault allegations against him, the Senate voted narrowly (50-48) to confirm him on Oct. 6, 2018. Harris and every other Senate Democrat, with the exception of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, voted no.

Harris vehemently opposed Kavanaugh’s nomination from the day it was announced. That opposition seemed to intensify during several days of questioning him over abortion rights and immigration, among other issues.

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh responds to a question from Sen. Kamala Harris as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh responds to a question from Harris as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Notably, Harris asked Kavanaugh if he knew of any laws that give the government power to make decisions about the male body. Kavanaugh faltered in his response. That moment in particular helped catapult the first-term California senator to national attention.

“I think she was one of the most effective questioners,” said Daniel Goldberg, the legal director for the Alliance for Justice Action Campaign. “And really, if you look back at her questioning of Brett Kavanaugh,” he told Yahoo News, “what’s stunning is how prescient she was.”

Goldberg pointed to several examples, including Harris’s focus on abortion.

“She asked Brett Kavanaugh his views on critical reproductive rights, including whole women’s health — the abortion restrictions put in place in Texas,” Goldberg said, “and lo and behold, just last month he would have allowed Louisiana to burden women’s right to have an abortion and implement a law that would have shut down all but one clinic in the state.”

Tasha Philpot, a government professor at the University of Texas in Austin, said Harris seemed more “composed” than Kavanaugh during the hearings.

“But I think that’s part of a larger picture of Black women being viewed as, you know, the angry Black woman,” Philpot said, “where any type of discontent at what’s going on is perceived as illegitimate. I thought her line of questioning and her tone were entirely appropriate for someone who would eventually receive a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., left, questions President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, in the evening of the second day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, on Sept. 5, 2018. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Harris questions Kavanaugh at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Sept. 5, 2018. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Both Philpot and Dittmar noted not just the stereotypical dynamics at play, but also the particular scrutiny that Harris — who also notably questioned former Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2017 and current Attorney General William Barr on the Senate Judiciary Committee last year — faces as a Black woman who is seemingly unafraid to both wield power and challenge it.

“Kamala Harris is only the second Black woman to serve in the Senate,” Philpot said. “So the image of her challenging the old white male guard is definitely something people aren’t used to seeing.”

How Harris’s strengths and vulnerabilities will resonate with voters remains to be seen. But Dittmar says voters who recoil at her assertiveness will have already been highly skeptical of the senator.

“It gets back to the ‘I don’t like Hillary. I’m not sure why,’” she said. “In this case, what Trump and his team are doing are giving you a specific reason. But the root of it is your discomfort with a woman exercising power in that way. In a way that has been traditionally relegated to white men.”

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