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Senate Democrats Launch Series Of Complaints As Kavanaugh Hearings Begin


It's been a fiery day on Capitol Hill, the first day of confirmation hearings for Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. There were hours of harsh rhetoric and spectators hauled out and arrested by police for disrupting the proceedings. Late this afternoon, Kavanaugh introduced himself. Here to walk us through what happened today is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Hi, Nina.


SHAPIRO: Give us the highlights of what we've heard from Kavanaugh so far.

TOTENBERG: You know, Ari, usually the first day of a Supreme Court confirmation hearing is a bit of a choreographed snoozer - just the senators making opening statements and a short statement from the nominee. But this one erupted from the get-go. We're going to get back to that in a moment. But first let's take a listen to Judge Kavanaugh's opening statement.


BRETT KAVANAUGH: For 12 years, I've been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. I have written more than 300 opinions and handled more than 2,000 cases. I've given it my all in every case. I am proud of that body of work, and I stand behind it. I tell people, don't read about my judicial opinions; read the opinions.

TOTENBERG: Reiterating what Chief Justice Roberts said at his confirmation hearing, Kavanaugh said that a judge must be a good umpire, a neutral arbiter. And he cited Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court opinion that struck down a law making it a crime to burn the American flag.


KAVANAUGH: As Justice Kennedy explained in Texas v. Johnson, one of his greatest opinions, judges do not make decisions to reach a preferred result. Judges make decisions because the law and the Constitution as we see them compel the results.

SHAPIRO: You know, we had originally expected that Kavanaugh would begin speaking earlier in the day. Take us back to this morning and what happened.

TOTENBERG: Well, right out of the gate, the Democrats moved to postpone the hearings, noting that last night, 42,000 or 43,000 pages of documents from Kavanaugh's time in the George W. Bush White House were dumped on the committee, giving no time to examine them.

The Democrats were also furious that on Friday evening, they were notified that a hundred thousand pages of other documents from his time in the White House would not be given to the committee because President Trump, not President Bush, was invoking some sort of privilege. We don't know whether it was executive privilege or what, but those documents were not going to be turned over to the committee. Democrat Patrick Leahy put the situation this way.


PATRICK LEAHY: What I fear is the American people will not know the full truth until your full record is public. And unfortunately Republicans have done their best to ensure that won't happen. And any claim that this has been a thorough and transparent process is downright Orwellian. This is the most incomplete, most partisan, least transparent vetting for any Supreme Court nominee I have ever seen.

SHAPIRO: So how long did this effort to postpone the hearings go on?

TOTENBERG: Well, for well over an hour and a half. And it came back up occasionally. And the spectators, obviously well-organized, began chiming in. Here's Senator Grassley, the chairman of the committee, the Republican chairman, speaking over protests from the gallery.


CHUCK GRASSLEY: As the Supreme Court has put it, quote, "unless the president can give his advisers some assurance of confidentiality, a president could not expect to receive the full and frank summations of facts and opinions upon which the effective discharge of his duties depends," end of quote.

TOTENBERG: Grassley just plowed on as protesters were hauled out of the room and arrested. But the demonstrators really got under Republican Senator Orrin Hatch's skin.


ORRIN HATCH: Mr. Chairman, I think we ought to have this loudmouth removed.


HATCH: I mean, we don't - we shouldn't have to put up with this kind of stuff.

SHAPIRO: Nina, did things eventually settle down?

TOTENBERG: Well, they sort of settled down. Senator Cornyn, the Republican whip, accused his own Republican chairman of running a hearing that had - was subject to mob rule. Senator Graham - Lindsey Graham, also a Republican - accused the Democrats of pure unadulterated hypocrisy. He said these should be called the hypocrisy hearings.

SHAPIRO: Nina, you've covered a lot of Supreme Court confirmation hearings - everybody who currently sits on the court. How unusual is it for this first day, which is typically opening statements, no back-and-forth, to be this contentious?

TOTENBERG: I've never seen a hearing like this. Now, of course the Democrats are under enormous pressure from people who want them to do the impossible; that is, stop a nominee by a president who has the votes, who has a majority in the Senate. And unless one of the Republicans defects - and there's no indication that's going to happen - the Democrats simply don't have the votes. And since the Republicans changed the rules last year, they don't have the filibuster, that you only need a simple majority to proceed. So, you know, we're just going to have to go on with this.

And by the afternoon, things seemed to calm down a little bit. Tomorrow we'll probably get to the substance - Judge Kavanaugh's views favoring expansive presidential power, how that could affect the Mueller investigation, President Trump's comments over the weekend attacking his own Justice Department's prosecutions of Republican lawmakers for alleged corruption. And, you know, there are going to be questions on all the big issues - abortion, birth control, gun control, regulation, much more.

SHAPIRO: The greatest hits. NPR's Nina Totenberg, one of our greatest hits...


SHAPIRO: ...Thanks for your coverage of this confirmation hearing.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.