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Republicans confront civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta in confirmation hearing for high-level Justice Dept. post

Vanita Gupta, left, and Lisa Monaco are President Biden’s nominees for associate attorney general and deputy attorney general, the agency’s No. 3 and No. 2 posts, respectively. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Republican senators on Tuesday challenged civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta over her positions on police reform and drug enforcement, along with her personal criticism of GOP leaders, seeking to paint President Biden’s nominee for the Justice Department’s No. 3 post as a liberal partisan unfit for the job.

During a joint confirmation hearing for Gupta and deputy attorney general nominee Lisa Monaco, conservative lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee cited editorials, testimony and tweets from Gupta to describe her as an activist who, if confirmed, would use the role of associate attorney general to advance what they labeled an extreme agenda.

Gupta, 46, apologized for the “coarse language” and “harsh tone” she had aimed at some Republicans while advocating on behalf of a broad civil rights coalition during the Trump administration. But she implored her critics to judge her work over more than two decades — including a previous stint at the Justice Department in the Obama administration — and pointed to efforts to forge consensus between liberal groups, conservative leaders and police organizations.

“The rhetoric has gotten quite harsh the last several years, and I have fallen prey to it. I wish I could take it back. I can’t,” Gupta said. “But I ask you to look at my lifelong record. I have, since early on, sought out people who do not always think like me, people who have different views. I believe in building consensus.”

Biden’s Justice Dept. already has split from Trump. Merrick Garland will go even further.

The hearing came after the Judiciary Committee voted last week along bipartisan lines to advance Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination as attorney general to the full Senate, which is expected to hold a confirmation vote Wednesday. During hours of intense questioning Tuesday, GOP senators sought to tie Gupta closely to the most liberal aims of demonstrators at the mass social justice protests following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis police custody last spring.

Gupta sought to diffuse their critiques, saying she does not support the movement to “defund the police.” Rather, she said, she has advocated for investing in mental health resources and social services to alleviate the burden on law enforcement agencies and crowded prisons — reform proposals she said were shared by police unions and some conservative leaders.

And she said that while she agrees with Biden’s position on decriminalizing marijuana, she no longer believes in a broader effort to relax drug laws, a position she had supported in a 2012 op-ed. Gupta cited her time overseeing the Justice Department’s civil rights division from 2014 to 2017 and personal family experiences for the evolution in her views.

Gupta said it would be up to the Biden White House to set the administration’s policy, while her job would be to help enforce the law with input from local police and community groups.

Several Republicans expressed deep skepticism. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) accused Gupta of advocating for “the extreme left and demonstrating an intolerance for and hostility to anyone who disagrees.”

Gupta spent the past four years as president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She has won support from a number of prominent conservatives, including Bill Kristol, Grover Norquist and Michael Chertoff, along with some local police chiefs and unions, including the National Fraternal Order of Police.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Gupta replied to Cruz. “As a lifelong civil rights advocate, I have a duty to enforce the Constitution, not to enforce anyone’s policy agenda or a partisan agenda.”

Anti-Trump conservatives rally to back Vanita Gupta, Biden’s pick for key Justice Dept. post

Democrats called their colleagues’ attacks on Gupta spurious and partisan in their own right. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told Gupta that her efforts to gain consensus from police groups and conservatives had engendered “criticism from people on the left for your pushing and building coalitions necessary to pass legislation and get things done.”

Republicans spent far less attention on Monaco, 53, who served in the Justice Department during the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations. She will oversee the national security divisions within the Justice Department.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a member of the committee, pressed Monaco over whether she agreed that civil unrest and violence at street protests in Portland, Ore., over several months last year constituted a similar threat of domestic terrorism as the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump in January.

Monaco refrained from a direct comparison, saying she agreed with Garland that “domestic terrorism has a very clear definition; it turns on the intent of the violence by the perpetrator.” Whether such violence comes from the political left or right, she added, “it needs to be investigated and prosecuted and it is unacceptable.”

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In the weeks leading up to the hearing, Gupta’s supporters had sought to counter what they called a smear campaign from hard-right conservative groups. On Tuesday, the Judicial Crisis Network, which had advertised against Gupta’s nomination last month, launched a new $1 million ad campaign citing her “radical, far left agenda.” Democrats called such attacks an effort to use her nomination as fuel for a culture war over social division along the lines of race, gender and economic class.

Last summer, during the widespread social justice protests, Gupta appeared before the Senate on a panel of civil rights advocates and responded to a question from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) by saying that she believes all Americans have “implicit bias and racial bias.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) pressed Gupta over that exchange on Tuesday.

“We all have implicit bias. That does not mean we harbor any racism at all, but there are unconscious assumptions and stereotypes” she responded. “I hold stereotypes I have to manage. I am a product of my environment. It’s part of the human condition.”

Gupta emphasized her work with police union officials in Baltimore during her time in the Justice Department’s civil rights division as an example of her efforts to collaborate over police reform measures.

Republicans also pressed Gupta over free speech, pressing the GOP case that leading social media companies have unfairly silenced some conservatives — an argument that, in their view, gained purchase when Twitter, Facebook and YouTube shut down Trump’s accounts after his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol in a deadly but failed bid to prevent Congress from certifying the election results. The companies cited policies prohibiting incitement of violence.

Gupta, who at the Leadership Conference worked with Facebook to shut down misinformation on its platform, said she is a defender of free speech. But she emphasized that social media companies have done too little to hold users accountable for violating their policies.

Throughout the hearing, GOP senators questioned Gupta over her own use of social media. Grassley and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) highlighted tweets from Gupta attacking GOP lawmakers and the Republican National Convention. Republicans, along with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), successfully blocked Biden’s nomination of Neera Tanden to head the Office of Management and Budget over her tweets attacking Republicans.

Blackburn read a tweet from 2018 in which Gupta said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) had failed her constituents and was “sending a dangerous message” to sexual assault survivors by supporting Trump’s nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Asked if she regretted the tweet, Gupta replied: “I do regret it, yes.”