Biden DOJ nominee Kristen Clarke walks back attacks on senators, Kavanaugh amid contentious confirmation

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Kristen Clarke, President Biden’s nominee to the assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department, walked back her past criticism of multiple moderate senators and Justice Brett Kavanaugh in a Judiciary Committee questionnaire submitted late last month. 

Clarke’s nomination was advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote Thursday after a contentious hearing in April. But her nomination still hangs in the balance as four key swing-vote senators swill haven’t publicly announced whether they’ll vote to confirm her. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., all have yet to announce whether they will support Clarke. 

After her hearing, Clarke submitted a 66-page document responding to several senators’ “Questions for the Record,” on April 26. She responded to queries on a broad range of topics from religious freedom to anti-racism. 

Among those answers, Clarke, whose controversial past writings and polemic social media history have come under scrutiny during her confirmation, walked back a handful of her past statements, including attacks on some of the senators she may need for her confirmation. 

 Kristen Clarke delivers remarks after being nominated to be civil rights division assistant attorney general by President-elect Joe Biden at The Queen theater January 07, 2021 in Wilmington, Delaware. Clarke’s nomination was advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
( Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., asked Clarke a series of questions about her past comments about Murkowski and Manchin. 

“In March, after a news article pointed out that you had called Senator Murkowski ‘disgraceful’ and accused Senator Manchin of ‘hollow words’ when he praised Martin Luther King, you set your Twitter account to ‘private,’ cutting off the public and the news media from being able to review your past public statements,” Cotton wrote. 

He continued to ask, “Do you still believe that Senator Murkowski is ‘disgraceful?,’” and “Do you still believe that Senator Manchin’s praise for Martin Luther King, Jr. was nothing more than ‘hollow words?’”

“I have used my platform as the leader of a national civil rights organization to bring attention to legal and policy issues that I deem important to achieving equal justice for all,” Clarke responded. “In retrospect, I regret the tone I occasionally took. I welcome the opportunity, as President Biden and Judge Garland have emphasized, to turn down the volume and lower the temperature.”

Clarke referred to the same statement when asked about comments she made labeling former President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees as “”white male extremists.”

The DOJ nominee also walked back a previous statement she made about another Trump-appointed judge – Justice Brett Kavanaugh. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, pointed out that Clarke had previously tweeted that, “As a civil rights lawyer with matters that regularly go before the Supreme Court, I can’t underscore how dangerous it will be to have [then-Judge Brett] Kavanaugh on the Court, a man who harbors such bias, rage, fury and is so easily unhinged. We should expect a spike in recusal motions for sure.”

Grassley asked whether Clarke still stands by that statement, whether she believes Kavanaugh will be fair to the Justice Department if she is confirmed and whether the DOJ should seek Kavanaugh’s recusal in civil rights cases. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks during the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee business meeting to vote on sending the nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., to be Interior Secretary, to the Senate floor in Washington on Thursday, March 4, 2021. Asked about her past comment that Murkowski is "disgraceful," Biden Department of Justice nominee Kristen Clarke said that she wishes she regretted her tone. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

“In my opinion, Justice Kavanaugh as a Justice of the Supreme Court has demonstrated a judicial demeanor consistent with what members of the public expect of Supreme Court Justices,” Clarke responded. 

Clarke was also asked about a tweet she sent describing Manchin’s vote to confirm Kavanaugh as “unreal.” 

“After a review of then Judge Kavanaugh’s record, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law decided not to support his nomination to the Supreme Court; while we found him qualified, we did not find that his record, at that time, reflected a strong commitment to civil rights,” she said. “This tweet reflected that position.” 

Clarke also declined to call for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is mired in a massive sexual harassment scandal – as well as several others – to resign. 

“Generally speaking, I believe credible allegations of harassment and inappropriate behavior should be investigated by the appropriate authorities,” Clarke said. “I have not formed an opinion about the allegations against Governor Cuomo and understand that these allegations are currently being investigated by the Office of the State Attorney General.”

Clarke’s response is similar to what others in the Biden administration have said of the scandals against Cuomo, including Biden himself. But the Biden administration is one of very few enclaves in Democratic politics where Cuomo has yet to face calls to resign. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., have each said Cuomo should step down. So have numerous state-level Democrats in New York and much of the New York U.S. House delegation. In addition to an investigation by the New York Attorney General Letitia James, the New York legislature is pursuing an impeachment probe against Cuomo. 

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., meanwhile, pushed Clarke on when it may or may not be called for to require people to present photo identification, likely aiming to get at the Biden administration’s opposition to the recently enacted Georgia law which requires photo ID for absentee voters. 

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks to members of the media prior to his meeting with CIA Director Nominee Gina Haspel, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, May 7, 2018. Manchin voted to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a move Biden DOJ nominee Kristen Clarke called "unreal." 

Blackburn asked Clarke about when photo ID requirements may contradict federal law, which Clarke said would have to be evaluated “on a case-by-case basis,” depending on a law’s purpose. Blackburn then asked Clarke about photo IDs for boarding planes, picking up tickets at will-call windows, picking up prescriptions, purchasing alcohol and more. 

“There are many valid reasons to adopt a law or policy requiring a photo ID,” Clarke responded to each of the queries. “Whether a particular law or policy violates federal civil rights laws can only be determined on a case-by-case basis after a review of the facts and the law, including but not limited to the reason the identification requirement was adopted, the nature of the right at stake, and whether it is consistently applied to all people.”

Contacted by Fox News multiple times Thursday and Friday, offices for Manchin, Collins, Sinema and Murkowski did not confirm whether the senators planned to vote one way or another on Clarke’s nomination. 

To be confirmed, Clarke will likely only need votes from two of those four senators, which assuming all other senators vote with their parties, would lead to a 50-50 tie that Vice President Harris could break. 

Democrats have lauded Clarke as a person who is uniquely qualified to lead the DOJ’s civil rights division. 

“Ms. Clarke has the breadth and depth of civil rights experience needed to revitalize the Civil Rights Division at this critical time,” committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Thursday. 

Schumer, meanwhile, called Clarke “an extremely well-qualified and capable civil rights attorney who would be the first Black woman to ever fill her position at the Justice Department.”

Republicans, however, have hammered Clarke over her past writings, including a 2020 Newsweek article that said, “We must invest less in police” three separate times. 

Sen. Ted Cruz. R-Texas, said Thursday that Clarke is among “the most radical nominees that have ever been put forward to any position in the federal government.” 

Fox News’ Kerri Kupec contributed to this report. 

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