This column first appeared July 7 on City Journal.
As has been widely reported, freshman senator Kamala Harris got off to a bumpy start in the Washington spotlight, but she quickly regained her footing during the nationally televised Senate Intelligence Committee hearings in early June, earning kudos from liberal journalists for her hectoring of various witnesses. Reporters lauded Harris’s aggressive questioning of Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers as a “high-octane performance.” A Politico headline was typical of the Left’s newfound appreciation for Harris’s attack-dog role: “Trump hearings launch Kamala Harris.”
The more vociferous Harris, a former prosecutor, became in her grilling of witnesses, the more fawning the media coverage. Harris’s questioning escalated to undisguised antagonism, rude interruptions, and transparent grandstanding, to the point that she openly browbeat Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions when they appeared before the committee. Harris’s discourteous antics prompted Republican committee chairman Richard Burr to intervene, insisting that Harris allow the witnesses to answer her questions.
The left-leaning Capitol Hill press corps sided with Harris, accusing Burr and Senator John McCain—who had risen to Rosenstein’s and Sessions’s defense—of partisan interference, with suggestions of sexism and even racism. A New York Times headline trumpeted: “Kamala Harris Is (Again) Interrupted While Pressing a Senate Witness.” CNN proclaimed that “Once again, senators cut off Harris as she rails on Sessions.” Instead of describing Harris as a bully, blatantly badgering witnesses for political theater, the media overlooked her frequent interruptions, going so far as to praise her “rapid-fire questioning . . . more commonly seen in courtrooms,” and created a false narrative that Harris was being “silenced.”
Harris exploited the controversy in a cynical fundraising campaign. Video clips of the encounter went viral under the hashtag “#NeverthelessShePersisted.” Nearly overnight, on the basis of her showboating performance, Harris was figuratively crowned Queen of the Resistance, and her status as a 2020 presidential frontrunner was dramatically bolstered.
Few reporters noticed Harris’s uncharacteristic reticence a few days later when she remained mute during a different committee hearing. Two Muslim-born women, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Q. Nomani, appeared before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to testify about the oppression of women by Islamist extremism, including the horrific practices of female genital mutilation, child marriages, honor killings, marital rape, and enforcement of sharia law. The outspoken Harris, so vocal and animated earlier, did not ask the witnesses a single question. Harris’s self-imposed silence elicited not a whisper of complaint from the same feminists and progressives who had recently accused Chairman Burr of sexism with the hashtag “#Mansplaining.”
Kamala Harris is hardly a naïf or a victim of partisan politics. As the protégé—and one-time paramour—of former California House speaker Willie Brown, one of the state’s shrewdest and most ruthless pols, Harris is an adept practitioner of hardball tactics. In her lengthy career as an elected official in California, Harris never hesitated to exercise her power—or silence her political opponents—when it was to her advantage.
For example, as California attorney general, Harris demanded that conservative-leaning nonprofits such as Americans for Prosperity and the Center for Competitive Politics file with her office unredacted donor lists—confidential information typically submitted only to the Internal Revenue Service—exposing supporters of such groups to the risk of disclosure and retaliation. Following Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich’s forced resignation in 2014 over a $1,000 contribution to the pro-traditional marriage Proposition 8 campaign, Harris’s position was calculated to chill the associational rights of conservative donors. “Outing” donors and exposing them to harassment and retaliation is, unfortunately, a common liberal tactic: in 2012, LGBT activists leaked the identity of donors to the National Organization for Marriage.
My 2016 profile of Harris for City Journal documented many of her other abuses of power in the service of her political supporters. For example, in 2014 she drafted a misleading ballot description for a trial-lawyer-backed initiative that would have watered down the state’s landmark medical-malpractice reform law, attempting to dupe voters into believing that Prop. 46 dealt with “drug and alcohol testing of doctors” rather than its real subject: removing the cap on noneconomic damages in malpractice cases. California voters saw through Harris’s deception and rejected the measure.
National reporters busy canonizing Harris for her performance at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings seem unconcerned about another story, concerning a potential “pay-to-play” scandal in which Harris effectively paid tens of thousands of dollars in 2010 and 2016 to buy the endorsement of Democratic representative Maxine Waters, appearing on a slate mailer sent to more than 200,000 of Waters’s constituents in South Central Los Angeles. The slate operation is run by Waters’s daughter, Karen, who has collected more than $650,000 for running the controversial endorsement mailers. According to the Washington Free Beacon, which alone is covering the story, Waters “appears to be the only Member of Congress to run such an operation.”
Finally, despite her recent splash in the Senate, some of Harris’s political baggage in California may come back to haunt her. As I reported last year, one of Harris’s most unsavory displays of favoritism was her intervention as attorney general to thwart the $843 million sale of a distressed chain of hospitals owned by the nonprofit Daughters of Charity to turnaround specialist Prime Healthcare, because the buyer was unwilling to accept the concessions demanded by a major Harris donor, the powerful Service Employees International Union, which represents hospital employees. Prime Healthcare later sued Harris in federal court, claiming that she abused her constitutional powers by conspiring with SEIU to veto the deal, placing the interests of a union over the health-care needs of the community. Ironically, that lawsuit is now pending before the same judge who presided over the Trump University case, Judge Conzalo Curiel. At an April 28 hearing, Judge Curiel stated that it was “almost inconceivable the court could grant a motion to dismiss” at this early stage in the case.
Harris’s fans in the press are unlikely to cover this case in much depth, however. As the disparate level of reportage over her Senate hearing performances demonstrates, liberal outrage is a highly selective phenomenon.