Gupta, nominated for associate attorney general at the Justice Department, and Kahl, seeking to become the Pentagon’s top policy adviser, each apologized to the GOP senators.
But a similar mea culpa did not spare Neera Tanden, the head of a liberal think tank whose nomination to head the Office of Management and Budget was torpedoed after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) joined Senate Republicans in opposing her based on many of her Twitter posts.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), emphasizing Biden’s pledge to unify the country, on Wednesday cited Kahl’s “hateful rhetoric” in announcing formal opposition to his nomination. Manchin said this week he was still deliberating over Kahl after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vouched for him in a private conversation.
“I have reached out to Republicans who he’s worked with and who he’s worked under. I wanted to get everybody’s input,” Manchin told Fox News on Tuesday. “So, I’m gathering all that information. I have not made a final decision.”
Manchin’s office had no comment when asked Wednesday whether he would support Gupta.
At Gupta’s Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) drew an expression of regret from her over a 2018 tweet in which she said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) had sent a “dangerous message” to sexual assault survivors by supporting Trump’s nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
“We have seen in some of the comments, whether they’re tweets or postings or interviews, some rhetoric that has caused us to question the decisions someone would make in a position of responsibility,” Blackburn said in an interview Wednesday.
“Anyone who is going for a Senate-confirmed position fully understands that their body of work writ large is something that is going to be open for discussion,” added Blackburn, who has announced opposition to Kahl’s nomination.
Democrats and other allies of Biden’s three nominees said Republicans are employing a cynical and unfair double-standard, given Trump’s relentless Twitter attacks on his political opponents and GOP support for some of his nominees who have made personal insults on social media.
At Kahl’s hearing, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) chided Republicans for not objecting to Trump’s behavior on social media.
“That kind of criticism regarding [Kahl’s] tweets from folks who didn’t say anything about the kind of lying, racist tweets out of the former president, I think is pretty rich,” Hirono said.
Kahl and Gupta each told senators they regretted getting swept up in social media discourse that grew more vitriolic during the Trump era. But colleagues who have worked with them said the GOP’s tactic was aimed at shifting the debate away from the qualifications of Biden’s deeply experienced nominees.
Gupta led the Justice Department’s civil rights division from 2014-2017 and Kahl served as Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice president.
Some Democrats and liberal advocates also have accused Republicans of focusing on blocking Biden’s minority nominees to fan culture wars over race, ethnicity and gender. Both Gupta and Tanden are Indian American. Kahl is White.
“In their playbook, for those [who] want to attack her, it’s a way to deflect from Vanita’s incredible record,” said Lena Zwarensteyn, a senior director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, where Gupta served as president for the past four years. “Our opponents try to say people aren’t respectable or nice enough or their tone is off, which is really a way to ‘keep them in their place.’ It’s really important to acknowledge who is being attacked and what is the motivation.”
Republicans said the tweets went directly to the question of judgment. Cotton accused Kahl — who had called the GOP the “party of ethnic cleansing” after Trump ordered a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria in 2019 — of a “long record of volatile outbursts” that would harm his relationship with Congress and stifle debate in the Pentagon. Cotton has drawn scrutiny for his own public statements, including a widely criticized op-ed published last year that advocated using military force to crack down on racial justice protests.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, cited a tweet from Gupta calling the Republican National Convention a forum for “racism, xenophobia and outrageous lies,” and another calling conservative Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, whom Trump nominated after the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “illegitimate.”
“Judges have thick skins, but the fact is that her name is going to be on hundreds, maybe thousands of briefs before those judges whose character she frequently maligned,” Grassley said. “How will she square the kind of even-keel legal advocacy we expect from our country’s top civil lawyer with the kind of unfair political advocacy championing against the very judges she’ll be appearing before?”
In an email Wednesday, George Hartmann, a spokesman for Grassley, told The Washington Post that after Tanden’s hearing, other Senate offices “reached out and asked to see lists of tweets, and multiple offices made their concerns known to the Ranking Member’s staff of the overheated and overly partisan nature” of some of Gupta’s tweets.
At the hearing, Gupta told the senators: “I do think that Twitter has been incredibly polarizing. I played a role in it and I don’t think it speaks well to my own desire to heal and build bridges and build consensus.”
Some Democratic allies said they expect the Republican criticism of Kahl and Gupta to be less effective than it was against Tanden because neither of them has put out nearly the same volume of tweets.
Justin Levitt, a law professor who worked with Gupta at the Justice Department, said lawmakers need only look at Gupta’s public service to recognize that she collaborated with both liberal and conservative groups, earning letters of support to the Senate committee from law enforcement unions and local police chiefs.
“I think of this as a lot of noise and a fair amount of pretext,” Levitt said. “She understands the rigorous nonpartisanship required in this job.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.