Questions continue to swirl about the letter California Sen. Dianne Feinstein received containing, reportedly, sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
But while most Democrats, even ardent critics, have declined to criticize Feinstein for her handling of the letter and its sensitive subject matter, her 2018 election opponent says it’s evidence of “a failure of leadership.”
“The American people deserve to know why the Ranking Member on the Senate Judiciary Committee waited nearly three months to hand this disqualifying document over to the federal authorities and why Sen. Feinstein politely pantomimed her way through last week’s hearing without a single question about the content of Kavanaugh’s character,” California state Sen. Kevin de León, a fellow Democrat, said in a statement.
Feinstein disclosed on Thursday morning that she had “received information from an individual concerning the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. That individual strongly requested confidentiality, declined to come forward or press the matter further, and I have honored that decision.”
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She added that she had “referred the matter to federal investigative authorities.” Feinstein Communications Director Tom Mentzer elaborated further, telling McClatchy that, “The Senator took these allegations seriously and believed they should be public, however, the woman in question made it clear she did not want this information to be public.”
Feinstein’s statement came after the Intercept reported she’d received a letter from a California constituent about Kavanaugh, but was refusing to share it with fellow Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Friday morning, the New Yorker reported that the woman who wrote the letter claimed Kavanaugh “held her down” and tried to “force himself on her” at a high school party several decades ago, even turning up the music in the room to drown out her protests. “She was able to free herself,” the story continued. Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.
Nearly three decades ago, Anita Hill testified before the Senate that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Thomas was still confirmed. But the ensuing outrage among female voters helped sweep a historic number of women into Congress in 1992, including Feinstein.
Now, Feinstein is the top ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees judicial confirmations, including a multi-day hearing last week on Kavanaugh’s nomination to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. The hearings were marked by liberal protests and complaints from Democrats about Republicans’ lack of disclosure and rushed hearing schedule. De León and others on the left were particularly critical of Feinstein for not being tougher on Kavanaugh and apologizing for the protests.
Both the Intercept and New Yorker stories suggested Senate Democrats were also unhappy with Feinstein’s secrecy about the letter. But several of the California senator’s colleagues defended her actions on Friday.
It “would have been inappropriate if she had an allegation sent to her and did not ask somebody to look into it,” Leahy added.
Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans echoed those sentiments as they tried to tamp down the scandal. “The Senator in the best position to determine the credibility of these accusations made the conscious decision not to take action on them, and the authorities to whom the accusations have been referred have decided not to take action either,” Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said in a statement Friday. Hatch further dismissed the letter as an “11th hour accusation that Democrats did not see fit to raise for over a month.”
De León, however, said that while “the anonymity of the person who wrote this letter must be protected at all costs … its contents reveal a harrowing account that must be considered as Republicans move to confirm the greatest threat to our constitutional and human rights in a generation.”
A spokesman for Democracy for America, which has endorsed de León, echoed that critique, calling it “profoundly unsettling” that Feinstein withheld such “ground-altering information” from fellow Democrats. “In failing to work collaboratively with her colleagues on the information she had, Senator Feinstein failed to be the bulwark against Trump’s hate-fueled, anti-woman agenda that Californians deserve,” Neil Sroka said.
But some of Feinstein’s most vocal critics were more forgiving. “If the alleged victim didn’t want the information more widely released, then I wouldn’t fault the senator,” said Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the DailyKos blog and a supporter of de León’s. However, Moulitsas described Feinstein’s performance during the Kavanaugh hearings as “truly disappointing.”
“It’s telling how inconsequential she was in the committee hearings last week, with other Democrats more forcefully taking the battle to Kavanaugh,” he added.
Political strategists were skeptical the criticism would seriously harm Feinstein’s bid for a fifth full term.
“Dianne Feinstein could set herself on fire on the steps of the Capitol to protest” Kavanaugh “and that still would not be progressive enough for many progressives,” said Dan Schnur, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley and former spokesman for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. “She’s going to continue to be criticized, regardless, but the nature of the criticism probably won’t take shape until there’s a better sense of the contents of the letter itself.” Schnur also noted that most of the people unhappy about Feinstein’s tack on Kavanaugh were probably already opposed to her.
Steve Maviglio, a Democratic communications consultant, said the whole episode could ultimately prove Feinstein’s “patient” approach is most effective if the letter ends up hurting Kavanaugh’s chances at confirmation. As it stands now, the Republican Senate majority is expected to narrowly approve his nomination, giving conservatives a crucial swing vote on the court.