Judge Brett Kavanaugh promised to serve as an independent justice if confirmed to the Supreme Court, as he sparred with Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday about his views and past work for former President George W. Bush.
Senate Democrats grilled Kavanaugh on abortion, guns and other issues Wednesday, getting down to substance after an opening day of partisan fireworks — as protesters continued to disrupt his confirmation hearing and Senate leaders clashed over how late the hearing could go.
“The first thing that makes a good judge is independence, not being swayed by political or public pressure,” Kavanaugh said during the second day of his hearing. “That takes some backbone, that takes some judicial fortitude.”
Democrats on the panel, including a number thought to be considering a presidential run in 2020, have sounded the alarm about Kavanaugh’s past work in Republican politics, including as a lawyer in Bush’s White House. President Trump nominated Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The confirmation hearing has been chaotic at times, with Democrats trying to delay the proceedings as they complain they haven’t received enough records from Kavanaugh’s past work.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell found a way to allow Wednesday’s confirmation hearing to continue into the night, after a brief floor clash with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Schumer had objected to McConnell’s request for the committee to continue meeting after 2 p.m., despite plans to go late. But McConnell, using a parliamentary maneuver, adjourned the Senate for the day — because commitees can meet as long as they like when the Senate is not in session.
Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House, touted Kavanaugh’s performance so far and mocked Democrats.
“I’ve watched his statements and honestly they’ve been totally brilliant,” he said. “I think the other side is grasping at straws and really the other side should embrace him because you’re never going to find better in terms of talent or intellect than what you have in Brett Kavanaugh.”
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking member and the first Democrat to question the nominee, began her questioning of Kavanaugh by referencing the outbursts from protesters.
“I’m sorry about the circumstances, but we’ll get through it,” she said.
Feinstein asked the nominee about his past case argument that Washington D.C.’s assault weapons ban was unconstitutional. He said he was following the precedent of the Supreme Court.
Kavanaugh, who grew up near Washington, replied that he fully understands how gang, gun and drug violence plagues cities “but as a judge, my job as I saw it was to follow the Second Amendment opinion of the Supreme Court.”
Feinstein pressed Kavanaugh over the Roe v. Wade court decision regarding abortion.
“Well, as a general proposition, I understand the importance of the precedent set forth in Roe versus Wade,” he said.
Feinstein also asked Kavanaugh about past comments regarding investigations involving a president, a key issue amid the Russia probe that has implicated numerous Trump associates. A staffer held up a sign with a 1999 law review quote from Kavanaugh that said, “If the president were the sole subject of an investigation, I would say no one should be investigating that.”
Kavanaugh said he’s never taken a position on the constitutionality of whether a president should be investigated while in office. He claimed those past comments were about the “balance of a president fighting a war, leading a war, and a president subject to say ordinary civil lawsuits,” like former President Bill Clinton faced.
Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin urged Kavanaugh to call on the committee to “hit the pause button” on the hearings and call for the release of more documents — something the nominee rejected.
“Senator, I do not believe that is consistent with what prior nominees have done who have been in this circumstance,” Kavanaugh replied. “It’s a decision for the Senate and the executive branch.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., pressed Kavanaugh about what he knew about the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program. Leahy also asked Kavanaugh if a president has a right to pardon himself, a power President Trump has said he believes he has.
“The question of self-pardons is something I have never analyzed,” Kavanaugh replied, calling it a “hypothetical question that I can’t begin to answer in this context as a sitting judge and as a nominee to the Supreme Court.”
Outbursts from protesters have been a recurring feature since the hearings began. On Tuesday, protests from Democratic lawmakers and demonstrators delayed the formal start of proceedings by more than an hour.
Moments after Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley opened the hearing Wednesday, shouting could be heard from the back of the room: “Sham president, sham justice!”
Ironically, at one point, protesters shouted as Kavanaugh discussed how he tried to be respectful in court. “I’ve tried to be a very collegial judge, I’ve tried to be civil,” he said.
When the disruptions continued, Kavanaugh asked Grassley, “Should I proceed?”
“Let these people have their free speech and interrupt the other 300 million people listening,” an irritated Grassley replied.
Other lawmakers expressed frustration over the outbursts.
“What kind of country have we become?” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, asked. “None of this happened just a couple years ago. It’s getting worse and worse and worse.”
The spectacle has underscored the political nature of the confirmation hearings, coming two months before the midterms and as some senators gear up for a possible 2020 presidential run against Trump. Several of those senators led the charge Tuesday in objecting to Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh served for more than a decade on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and, before that, for five years as a lawyer in the White House Counsel’s office in the George W. Bush administration. He also worked for independent counsel Ken Starr for three years during the probe that led to the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton.
Kavanaugh’s elevation from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court would mark a generational rightward shift on the Supreme Court, raising the stakes beyond those of last year’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch.
The judge’s nomination, though, will ultimately succeed or fail depending on a handful of swing-vote senators, including vulnerable red-state Democrats and moderate pro-choice Republicans who have all said that they would withhold judgment on the nominee.
Republicans command a narrow 51-49 Senate majority.
Republicans have said they hope to have Kavanaugh confirmed by a floor vote by early October, when the next Supreme Court term begins.
Fox News’ Judson Berger, Bill Mears and Gregg Re contributed to this report.