- The following is an exclusive excerpt from “Kamala’s Way,” a new biography by Dan Morain.
- In it, he explores how the first female VP “rose above the din” in Washington, where her unapologetic ambition and focus made her a star.
- One Senate colleague described her like this: “She cooks. She shares recipes. She invites senators over for small dinners. She wears Chuck Taylors. She has an interesting family. She loves basketball.”
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Donald Trump’s leadership style as president was the same as it was during his campaign. He was playing a part in a reality show, with enough interesting characters and plotlines to keep audiences riveted, and glued to their screens. Whether she did so intentionally or not, Kamala Harris was one of a few Democrats to play Trump’s own game. She was becoming an easy-to-identify character herself. She did so Trump’s way too, by grabbing the spotlight to get her message out and change the narrative.
Under normal circumstances, lawmakers are criticised for acting like politicians and seeking the limelight.
Perhaps because of jealousy or competition, blatant self-promotion is seen as a vice, not a virtue. But as Trump took over Washington, Harris rose above the din. Her ability to come up with pithy sound bites, viral videos, and eye-catching headlines elevated her from being a bit player in the show to becoming a star. The more Republicans made her the public face of the Democratic Resistance, the more the Republicans made Harris’s star rise even higher.
Reporters helped, too, seizing on the narrative that Harris was helping create that she was engaged in a David and Goliath battle with Trump and his administration
That storyline was especially popular with reporters who had flocked to Washington to cover the Trump drama for the folks back home. What perpetrators of that narrative often overlooked was that Harris was by no means the only Democrat battling Trump and scoring victories. Many other Democratic lawmakers were also expertly pinning down administration officials on a variety of issues, and provoking Trump enough for him to single them out.
The Senate was full of them, Trump resisters too, including at least two former prosecutors who hadn’t called nearly as much attention to their backgrounds as prosecutors as Harris did. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse oversaw scores of prosecutors as the US attorney for Rhode Island. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut had been the state’s attorney general for more years than Harris served as California’s attorney general. All six of the other Democrats on the Intel committee were skilled at getting answers from even the most hostile of witnesses. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Senator Mark Warner, was particularly good at it.
Some of the old guard, like Dianne Feinstein, were renowned for being thoroughly prepared, asking informed questions and getting the answers they needed. But where Harris would rely on direct confrontation, Feinstein acted more on instinct.
Feinstein elicited perhaps the biggest money quote of the Trump/Russia hearings during her questioning of former FBI Director James Comey. Comey’s appearance, a day after Rosenstein’s, came amid media reports that Trump had invited him to the White House for a private dinner for two, demanded loyalty from him and then, when Comey refused, fired him without cause. The fact that Comey had taken detailed contemporaneous â€” and court-admissible â€” notes of everything made his appearance especially significant.
So did the fact that Trump, in response to those reports, hinted in a tweet that maybe there were secret White House tapes that would prove Comey wrong.
Comey spent hours testifying, often giving long and sometimes rambling answers to friendly questions from committee Democrats, including Harris. In the middle of his response to a question from Feinstein, he said: “Look, I’ve seen the tweet about tapes. Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” before returning to the subject at hand. A video clip of that exchange, too, was posted to the Internet and viewed by millions before the day was out.
Harris could be disrespectful to top-level Department of Homeland Security officials undergoing Senate confirmation, no matter what issues they would be overseeing
That might have been understandable if they would be enforcing Trump’s immigration policies, which affect Californians directly. But Homeland Security has 240,000 employees, who deal with many apolitical issues and are devoted to trying to keep Americans safe.
The resentment about that ran so deep at the Department of Homeland Security that when current and former senior officials were coming out publicly in support of Joe Biden, at least four of them decided not to after he named Harris as his running mate, said the former Homeland Security official, who has worked in Republican and Democratic administrations and left in order to come out publicly against Trump, explained why: “They were like, sorry, I can’t do it.” The former official added: “Something about the way that she operated really bothered these individuals. For them, it seemed like she was always about the politics and not about the mission.”
An issue that rubbed some officials wrong was that Harris declined to meet with many people Trump nominated for the highest positions in Homeland Security. Instead, she chose to grill them in public confirmation hearings with yes-or-no questions about complex topics that could not be answered in simple ways. The Trump nominees’ inability or refusal to answer questions might make for good soundbites. But it did little to provide the public with answers to some of the most important policy issues of the day. It also didn’t help promote the kind of good governance that’s needed for the Senate to succeed at its oversight role. Perhaps most importantly, it didn’t help foster productive relationships between top department officials and one of the senators, Harris, who oversaw them.
Traditionally, the kinds of fraught issues that Harris liked to ask about in public hearings have been discussed initially in private meetings
Those meetings, known as courtesy calls, come at the end of an exhaustive process for the select few political appointees deemed so critical to the department’s mission that they require confirmation by the full Senate.
These appointees are required to send enormous amounts of personal and professional background information to the oversight committee. After digesting that information, the committee send the nominee a lengthy series of policy questions. Once the nominees reply, they meet with the committee staff potentially for hours. The last stop is the courtesy call with senators. It’s the most important. It’s how senators and senior staff get a feel for the nominees and their management style. The calls are akin to a interview for a big job. In less partisan times, the meetings could make the difference between confirmation and rejection. Even if they agree to disagree, the senator and nominee can establish some rapport and trust.
In the spring of 2017, Elaine Duke, nominated by Trump to the second highest ranking position in the Department of Homeland Security, sought a meeting with all the Homeland Security Committee members. She especially wanted to meet with Democrats so she could provide them with detailed answers to issues that were in the headlines, and that seemed too complicated for the structure confines of a public hearing. Duke, a career civil servant, had spent 28 years in public service, working in the administrations of Obama and George W. Bush. Almost all the Senate Democrats met with her privately, but not Harris. Harris asked her questions in public.
“I know I’m not the only one she didn’t want to meet with,” said Duke, who is widely seen as an apolitical moderate. “My understanding is that in general she did not meet with any of the Republican nominees.”
Duke said Harris “prosecutor-like questions seemed more geared to making headlines than collectively figuring out the best way forward, leaving her wondering: “Are you trying to glean information for oversight or are you trying to indict?”
Duke was confirmed on an 85-14 vote in 2017, with Harris voting against her confirmation and Feinstein for it. She served until April 2018, including five months as acting Homeland Security secretary. She had no comment when asked whether Biden’s choice of Harris as his running mate influenced her decision not publicly support the Democratic nominee.
“When you look at her public record, the hearings and the campaign, is there an underlying anger there?” Duke asked. “And will that help, or further divide the country in terms of moving away from compassion and more towards anger?”
In normal times, Kamala Harris’s brash confidence and unapologetic ambition would have generated more friction within the ultra-competitive Senate. But the timing of her arrival proved fortuitous. From the start of the 115th Congress, Senate Democrats quickly realised that they faced a far greater threat from the Trump administration than they did from one another. Most pulled together in response.
Many of the staffers who make the Senate run found Harris to be far more approachable than most of her colleagues, and Sen. Ron Wyden and Harris formed a special bond
The two were often seen walking and talking in the Senate hallways together; the six-foot-four and 71-year-old Wyden towering over Harris, who is five-foot-two and 56. Wyden, who went to college on a basketball scholarship, and Harris spend a lot of their work downtime talking about her Golden State Warriors and his Portland Trailblazers.
“Kamala Harris comes to play every day. I mean, every single day. She’s prepared, she’s focused, she’s smart, she’s effective. She does her homework,” Wyden said. “And that’s really the coin of the realm of the Senate; who’s doing their homework and who’s just throwing press releases out for a 10-second sizzle and is not really serious about that.”
For years, Wyden doggedly pursued lines of questioning that raised awareness about a raft of significant issues and concerns. He had, for example, railed for more than sixteen years about government overreach on surveillance, torture, drone strikes and other US intelligence and judicial matters in prosecuting the War on Terrorism. But he often found himself voted down by a 15 to two or even a 14 to one margin. With Harris on the committee, he found an ally.
She has voted with him on many of the most significant issues before the committee, after she does her own research.
Although Harris’s vote was not enough usually to tip the balance in most cases, her support made a big difference in helping Wyden promote an amendment that would have prohibited the use of Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect Americans’ Internet search history and web browsing records. They lost by one vote. In January 2017, after Wyden was reelected to his fourth term, he took his daughter Scarlett to his ceremonial swearing-in in the Old Senate Chamber. The red-headed 4-year-old drew laughs by giving Biden, who was swearing in senators, an unusual but sceptical look.
“I actually showed it to a few people on the floor because they had asked me about it,” Wyden said. “And so there were a group of us and everybody said, ‘What’s she doing in it?’ And Kamala piped up and said, ‘Scarlett’s giving the Vice President of the United States side eye everybody! That’s what’s going on!'”
Thinking about the episode later, Wyden concluded that Harris truly did bring to the Senate something new. She cooks. She shares recipes. She invites senators over for small dinners. She wears Chuck Taylors. She has an interesting family. She loves basketball.
“She is somebody who is just a very interesting person to be around.”From “Kamala’s Way” by Dan Morain. Copyright Â© 2021 by Dan Morain. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved.
Dan Morain has covered California policy, politics, and justice-related issues for more than four decades, including 27 years at the Los Angeles Times and eight at The Sacramento Bee, where he was editorial-page editor.
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