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Opinion Sen. John Neely Kennedy goes full Joe McCarthy in questioning a Biden nominee born in the U.S.S.R.

President Biden’s currency comptroller nominee Saule Omarova defended herself from charges of communism by Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) on Nov. 18. (Video: C-SPAN)

As a refugee from the former Soviet Union and a critic of Trumpism, I have gotten used to receiving hate mail that tells me to go back to where I came from and accuses me of being a Communist or a Russian agent. (Pretty rich coming from supporters of a person elected president with Russian help!) Still, it is startling to see this level of Red-baiting nativism not just in anonymous hate mail but in the august hearing rooms of the U.S. Senate.

On Thursday, Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R.-La.) went full Joseph McCarthy in his questioning of Saule Omarova, a Cornell University law professor nominated to be the nation’s top banking regulator. She has a distinguished resume: a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a J.D. from Northwestern University Law School, a stint at a white-shoe law firm, and service in President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department. According to another law professor, Omarova is “widely regarded as one of the top financial regulatory scholars in the world.”

Admittedly, she has some pretty radical ideas, including replacing all private bank deposits with accounts held by the Federal Reserve. She has also been critical of the banking industry (she called it a “quintessential a--hole industry”), which is why banking lobbyists are working so hard to defeat her nomination.

But instead of discussing her academic work or progressive ideas, Kennedy focused most of his questioning on the fact that Omarova was born in the Soviet Union. (She moved to the United States 30 years ago and became a U.S. citizen.) “You used to be a member of a group called the Young Communists, didn’t you?” Kennedy demanded. He might as well have asked McCarthyists’ signature question: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

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“Everybody in that country was a member of the Komsomol, which was the Communist youth organization,” Omarova patiently replied. But Kennedy wouldn’t give up. He asked if she had actively resigned from the Komsomol even after she explained that members age out of the organization automatically. “Would you look at your records and see if you can find a letter of resignation?” he demanded.

Continuing in the same repugnant vein, Kennedy pointed out that Omarova attended Moscow State University, where she studied “scientific communism” and wrote a thesis on Karl Marx’s economic ideas. He tried to link her background to her progressive ideas, which aren’t all that different from those of native-born Americans such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Despite his cornpone act, Kennedy is highly educated. Is he really so ignorant as to imagine that a student at a Soviet university could have written a thesis on Milton Friedman or studied free-market economics?

The lowest blow of all came when the senator said: “I don’t mean any disrespect. I don’t know whether to call you professor or comrade.”

Omarova would have been justified in replying with Army counsel Joseph Welch’s famous rebuke of McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency?” Instead, she said, “Senator, I’m not a Communist. I do not subscribe to that ideology. I could not choose where I was born.” She went on to recount the suffering her family endured under Joseph Stalin and concluded, “I’m proud to be an American.”

Omarova’s statement was pitch-perfect, but that a presidential nominee has to defend her loyalty to America because she wasn’t born here is a telling, and appalling, comment on the state of the Republican Party in 2021.

Kennedy is far from alone in bringing up Omarova’s background. The Wall Street Journal editorial board accused her of not repudiating her “Soviet-era views,” and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) argued that she has “an aversion to anything like free-market capitalism” because she “grew up in the former Soviet Union.”

Coming from a family of Soviet emigres (my parents also graduated from Moscow State), I can assure Toomey that people who emigrated from the Soviet Union are usually at least as conservative as he is. That Omarova is on the left no doubt owes a lot more to her background in American academia than to her upbringing in the U.S.S.R.

The kind of smears directed at Omarova were remarkably similar to those aimed at Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, another immigrant from the Soviet Union, who testified about then-President Donald Trump’s attempts to use military aid to blackmail Ukraine. That led to accusations that Vindman was a Ukrainian spy. In Vindman’s case, the calumnies were especially offensive because he is a combat veteran who was wounded in Iraq. But they are bad enough in Omarova’s case, too. No American should be subjected to such character assassination.

Given how leftist Omarova’s views are, I would normally hesitate to support her nomination. But it is imperative that the Senate confirm her to repudiate the GOP’s born-again McCarthyism and to affirm that some of the best Americans weren’t born in this country.

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