It seems like the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have been watching a lot of Tucker Carlson lately.
During Wednesday’s confirmation hearings for Kristen Clarke, President Biden’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, they grilled her with accusations that parroted bad-faith attacks Carlson has pushed in recent segments of his Fox News show.
Carlson, whose latest controversy has been touting the white supremacist theory that Democrats want to “replace the current electorate” with “voters from the Third World,” has made Clarke a frequent punching bag, airing a half-dozen segments with the goal of painting her as an anti-white extremist.
“In a sane country, Kristen Clarke should be under investigation by the Civil Rights Division, not running it,” Carlson said earlier this year.
Republicans were happy to use his segments as fodder for attacks against the 45-year-old Black nominee during her hearing.
The most glaring example came from Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who took a clearly satirical article Clarke wrote in college to question whether she was a reverse racist.
“Maybe there's a misprint, I'm sure you can clear it up for me, dating back to your days in school when you seemed to argue that African Americans were genetically superior to Caucasians. Is that correct?” Cornyn asked.
Clarke said it was “a satirical reference” aimed at mocking “The Bell Curve,” a best-selling racially charged book that had been written by a Harvard professor while she was on campus a quarter-century ago.
“What I was seeking to do was to hold up a mirror, and put one racist theory alongside another to challenge people as to why we were unwilling to wholly reject the racist theory that defined the Bell Curve book,” she said.
Cornyn followed up to ask “So this was satire?” Clarke said it “absolutely” was, leaving him to pivot to other topics.
Cornyn responded to a tweet from this VICE News writer about the exchange by complaining about a “double standard” for Clarke and how reporters treated now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his hearing. But he repeatedly declined to say whether he thought Clarke was being literal or facetious.
It’s clear that this wasn’t her actual position. But it’s debatable whether people should be judged harshly for their half-baked teenage political views, as Cornyn must understand: Way back when he was a high school student, Cornyn backed segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s presidential campaign.
Clarke has spent two decades working on civil rights issues for the Department of Justice and at legal advocacy organizations. But Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, the committee’s ranking Republican, plumbed Clarke’s school days as well.
While a student at Columbia Law, she helped organize a conference that included a panel where people argued against the controversial conviction of Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal for killing a cop. Raising a guilt-by-association attack that Carlson has also pushed, Grassley said she’d helped organize “a conference that featured a number of speakers that called violent radicals, including numerous cop killers, political prisoners and POWs,” and asked her if she agreed with their views.
Clarke said she was a student volunteer who helped organize the event and didn’t agree.
That wasn’t enough for Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.
“Your advocacy and frankly extreme position on defunding the police is paired with a history of not only excusing but celebrating murderers who have murdered police officers. It's been reported that during law school, you helped organize a conference with speakers who referred to convicted cop killers as political prisoners,” Cruz told Clarke.
If guilt by association is an important issue for Cruz, he might recall he chose Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King, who was already known for his long history of racist remarks, to be a national co-chairman for his 2016 presidential campaign.
The attacks are even more absurd given how long a public track record of advocacy Clarke has. She is undoubtedly a liberal civil rights activist—until recently she led the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and before that she worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Other Republicans were much more effective during the hearing at actually focusing on Clarke’s recent views.
An easy target: Clarke’s 2020 Newsweek op-ed that was titled “I Prosecuted Police Killings. Defund the Police—But Be Strategic.”
“I'm sure that we'll hear the usual refrain today that nominees don't really mean it when they say ‘Defund the police.’ But the fact is, it was said,” Grassley said at the beginning of the hearing.
The actual op-ed is more nuanced than the headline, which Clarke disavowed as “a poor title chosen by the editor.” But cutting funds to police departments is a controversial topic that doesn’t need to be distorted for actual questions.
Clarke’s talking-point defense on that op-ed was that she didn’t have “the power of the purse” to increase resources for everyone when she wrote the piece so was advocating for taking police resources for other uses.
“I don't support taking away resources from police and putting communities in harm's way,” she said, seemingly reversing her earlier position as she repeatedly said she supported Biden’s push to increase funding to police departments.
But Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee pushed Clarke hard on that piece, pointing out that at multiple points in the op-ed, she’d written, “We must invest less in police.”
Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton took a different approach, asking Clarke pointed questions about her comments criticizing the grand jury decision not to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown and her initial claim that Jacob Blake was unarmed when he was shot by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year (Blake had a knife but no gun).
“Based on your pattern of comments and jumping to conclusions without evidence every cop in America should be terrified that the Department of Justice is going to jump to a conclusion when they have to make a split-second decision to defend themselves,” Cotton said.
Grassley repeatedly pushed Clarke to say that she thought Republicans could vote against her without being racist and sexist, firing back against criticism that they’ve unfairly targeted Biden nominees that aren’t white men.
“So is it possible... for Republicans to oppose President Biden's nominees on ideological grounds without being racist or sexist?” he asked Clarke.
Of course. But bad-faith distortions of a nominee’s record don’t help make the case.