Two top Justice Department nominees vowed Tuesday to safeguard the agency from the influence of partisan politics and confront the mounting threat posed by domestic extremists laid bare by the deadly assault on the Capitol.
At their joint confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, deputy attorney general nominee Lisa Monaco and associate attorney general pick Vanita Gupta – slated to fill the second and third-ranking posts at the department – called for re-claiming the department’s independence as its “North Star.”
“The Justice Department is at an inflection point,” Monaco told lawmakers. “Never has the department’s role in protecting our national security and the safety of the American people been more important… Our response to the shocking events of January 6th, an attack that cut to our country’s core, and I know so personally affected many in this room, is nothing less than the defense of our democracy.”
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Monaco, who once served as chief of Justice’s National Security Division, cast the domestic extremist threat as “metastasizing across the country” and pledged to determine what is “mobilizing people to violence.”
‘I do not support defunding police’
Gupta, who has faced a drumbeat from conservative groups who have branded her as an opponent of law enforcement, quickly sought to counter that criticism while expressing regret for “harsh” social media commentary directed at the Trump administration.
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Gupta had regularly taken aim at the Trump Justice Department and former Attorney General William Barr, describing his leadership as “grossly” political.
“I do not support defunding police,” said Gupta, who served as the acting chief of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in the Obama administration.
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Of her past social media critiques, the nominee said: “I wish I could take it back, but i can’t.”
Much of the committee’s attention was directed at Gupta, as Republican senators closely questioned the nominee on a range of issues, from police funding in wake of the social justice movement, the decriminalization of drugs and capital punishment.
Gupta, the CEO of the Leadership Conference of Civil and Human Rights, repeatedly affirmed her support for law enforcement, asserting that her past statements about police funding had been mischaracterized.
The nominee said there is need to invest in community resources for mental illness and drug addiction, so that the related problems do not fall to police to confront.
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Gupta said she also supported additional training and equipment for police to include body cameras, crime data analysis and officer wellness programs, adding that she supported President Joe Biden’s push for $300 million to bolster the Justice Department’s efforts to promote community policing.
Pressed by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Gupta said she no longer supports the decriminalization of “simple possession” for all drugs.
Though she supports such policy for marijuana, Gupta said her position on other drugs had “evolved” based on her prior service at Justice and an appreciation for the damage that drug abuse causes in families.
“I don’t support decriminalizing” all drugs, Gupta said. “That was a prior position.”
Opposition to Gupta’s nomination has given rise to a powerful alliance that has rallied to her defense.
Rarely have police chiefs and law enforcement’s powerful labor organizations joined forces, but they have offered unmitigated support for Gupta, despite her close scrutiny of police departments as the acting Civil Rights chief.
Those endorsements were prominently acknowledged by both Republicans and Democrats Tuesday.
Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., lauded Gupta, drawing parallels to civil rights icon and Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall for her work in overturning wrongful convictions involving more than 40 people accused of drug crimes. Gupta’s clients were ultimately pardoned by then Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
“She always worked with us to find common ground even when that seemed impossible,” said Patrick Yoes, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, in a letter to the Senate panel. “Although in some instances our disagreements remain, her open and candid approach has created a working relationship that is grounded in mutual respect and understanding.
“This extensive interaction with Ms. Gupta over a period of years,” Yoes said, “informs our belief that, if confirmed as Associate Attorney General, she will continue her practice of working with us to find solutions.”
The support has been echoed by current and former police chiefs who cast her as a “strategic problem solver” who comes to the job at a time when public confidence in law enforcement has been called into question.
“Ms. Gupta has demonstrated a seriousness and willingness to understand the intense challenges, and even dangers, facing police officers with the intent of improving policing at large without degrading the overwhelming number of brave and honorable police officers,” a coalition of current and former law enforcement leaders wrote to the committee.”
‘Without fear or favor’
Without directly referring to the Trump administration, both nominees stressed a need to re-set a department roiled by politics during the past four years.
Monaco, who also served as White House homeland security advisor during the Obama administration, promised to “affirm the values of the Department of Justice without fear or favor.”
“I will aggressively ensure that the Justice Department is independent from partisan influence,” Gupta said. “That independence is part of a long tradition, and it is vital to the fair administration of justice and preserving the public’s trust and confidence in our legal system.”