Washington — It’s a job that fits the senator perfectly and, in any case, Richard Blumenthal says he had little choice but to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee — an assignment that has substantially boosted his profile, especially since President Donald Trump has been elected.
Shortly after he was sworn into the Senate in 2011, Blumenthal said the then-head of the panel, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told him “I don’t care what you want. You are going to be on the Judiciary Committee.”
Blumenthal said his experience as a trial lawyer and prosecutor, including 20 years as Connecticut’s attorney general, prompted Leahy and other senior Democrats to insist he serve on the committee.
“In some sense, the Judiciary Committee chose me,” Blumenthal said.
It’s an assignment that Blumenthal relishes and where he has put his high-energy, hard-charging approach to good use.
The Judiciary Committee has by no means escaped the waves of partisanship that threaten to drown Congress. In fact, it has become a key battlefield for Senate Democrats in their feuds with the White House over judges and other important nominees, and on efforts to investigate the conduct of the Trump administration and Trump campaign officials. Blumenthal has been in the center of all the major battles.
“In some sense, the Judiciary Committee chose me.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
In February of 2017, he was among the first to call for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russian involvement in U.S. elections.
During Attorney General William Barr’s confirmation hearing, Blumenthal was the first to press the nominee on the release of the findings of then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Blumenthal was the only member of the Judiciary Committee to vote against the confirmation of former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, “because he refused to appoint a special counsel,” the senator said.
And he’s been one of the most vocal critics of a number of judicial nominees the panel has vetted, including Wendy Vitter, the wife of former Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, because the candidate for a federal judgeship declined to say whether Brown v. Board of Education — the landmark opinion from 1954 that struck down school segregation — was correctly decided.
“I have really dug into the background of these nominees,” Blumenthal said. “I’ve asked whether they would uphold Roe v. Wade as well as Brown v. Board of Education because their values seem so antithetical to mainstream ideals and principles of our Constitution. The president obviously wants to remake the judiciary into the far right, extreme fringe of the Republican Party.”
Because the GOP controls the Senate, and holds a majority of seats on the Judiciary Committee, Vitter and most of the judges Blumenthal has opposed were confirmed. But his opposition to those nominees has won him the gratitude of liberal and civil rights groups that are at the front lines of the battle over judicial appointments.
“Senator Blumenthal has been a true champion of civil rights issues in upholding the independence of the courts,” said Kristine Lucius, executive vice president for policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he has been a critical and steadfast leader during a time when defending the integrity of our government has become critical to the future of our country.”
Blumenthal “has been a brave voice in calling for constitutionality and accountability,” Lucius said. “In an ideal world, we would have more people like him on the committee.”
‘A natural’ to sue Trump
Blumenthal’s activism on the committee has provoked strong condemnation from Trump supporters and put him on the president’s personal insult list.
The president made the first of his many Twitter attacks against Blumenthal after Justice Neil Gorsuch — then a candidate for the Supreme Court — made a courtesy visit to the senator in February of 2017. The senator later reported that Gorsuch said Trump’s attacks on judges who ruled against his policies were “disheartening and “demoralizing.”
Trump said Blumenthal had misrepresented the judge’s comments, although the judge confirmed he had made those comments to Blumenthal weeks later during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on his nomination.
“Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who never fought in Vietnam when he said for years he had (major lie), now misrepresents what Judge Gorsuch told him?” Trump tweeted.
Blumenthal, who served in the Marine Reserves during the Vietnam War, said he misspoke when he said during his 2010 Senate campaign that he had served in Vietnam. He said he should have said that he served in the reserves during the Vietnam era.
Trump also went after “Da Nang Dick,” as the president calls him, after Blumenthal questioned whether the president’s eldest son had been truthful in his testimony to Congress about his family’s dealings with Russia.
“How does Da Nang Dick (Blumenthal) serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee when he defrauded the American people about his so called War Hero status in Vietnam, only to later admit, with tears pouring down his face, that he was never in Vietnam,” Trump asked in a tweet.
“An embarrassment to our Country!” the president added.
Blumenthal never claimed to have been a war hero.
He is also a burr under Trump’s saddle. Blumenthal is the lead sponsor in a federal lawsuit against the president, Blumenthal v. Trump, that is based on the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bars a president from taking payments from foreign states unless he or she receives approval from Congress.
The lawsuit, joined by about 200 other Democratic lawmakers, accuses Trump of violating the clause because his businesses, including his hotel in downtown Washington D.C., have hosted foreign embassy events and visiting foreign officials.
Last month, a federal judge reviewing the case ruled against Trump’s efforts to block a subpoena for information about the president’s finances, strongly endorsing Congress’ broad authority to investigate the president.
Trump called the decision “crazy.” Justice Department lawyers representing Trump have asked the court to put the case on hold, pending their request for an appeal of a refusal to throw out the lawsuit.
Blumenthal said organizing the emoluments case “was a natural for me. Most of my career has been in the courtroom, in litigation,” he said.
While Blumenthal is considered one of the most progressive members of the Senate, he has not joined other congressional progressives in calling for an impeachment of the president. Blumenthal, however, has said that while he has not taken the idea of impeachment “off the table,” there are other ways, including congressional hearings and lawsuits in court, to press for White House accountability.
Trying to find common ground
While Blumenthal has used his legal skills as part of a partisan effort to frustrate Trump’s agenda, he has also worked with Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on several issues.
“I really try to find common ground,” Blumenthal said. “When I say ’common ground,’ it’s not acres of common ground but plots of common ground where we can work together… Most of us on the committee are lawyers. I am a litigator. You know, tomorrow I’m going to be on the opposite side of a courtroom, and we’re going to be going at each other, full bore. The next day we might be on the same side of a case.”
Blumenthal introduced the Affordable Prescriptions for Patients Act with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. It would curb the extension of patents by drug companies, a practice the senators say quashes competition.
He has also worked with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, on the Special Counsel’s Transparency Act, legislation that would have required the Justice Department to release Robert Mueller’s final report on his two-year investigation of Russian meddling into the 2016 U.S. elections.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell never allowed the legislation to come to the Senate floor for a vote
U.S. Attorney General Barr did release Mueller’s 448-page report, but redacted some of it, causing Blumenthal and other Democrats to press for its full release, and for Mueller’s testimony before Congress.
Blumenthal has even worked with Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a strong defender of the president, to co-sponsor a bill modeled after a Connecticut law and other state laws that would allow family members and friends to intervene and disarm people who exhibit warning signs of violent behavior.
The federal “red flag” law was introduced last year after the Parkland, Fla. school shooting. “If this becomes law, every state will have an opportunity to go to a federal judge or magistrate and inform them that this person is about to blow,” Graham said.
Blumenthal also teamed up with Graham on legislation aimed at protecting voting machines from being hacked. Neither he nor other Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee responded to requests for comment for this story. But Blumenthal’s Democratic colleagues were effusive in their praise of the Connecticut senator.
“From defending against attacks on reproductive rights to standing up to the gun lobby, I’ve watched him draw on that courtroom experience to shape his views and guide his decision making.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA
“Senator Blumenthal has been a terrific leader on the Judiciary Committee,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. “As a fellow former U.S. Attorney and former state attorney general, I see how he has the respect of members of the committee from both sides of the aisle.”
Whitehouse also said “Dick has the legal skills and confidence to think ahead of the headlines, and take on issues like our emoluments litigation, which he leads.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the senior Democrat on the committee, said “Senator Blumenthal’s background as a former U.S. attorney and Connecticut’s attorney general has made him an invaluable member of the Judiciary Committee.”
“From defending against attacks on reproductive rights to standing up to the gun lobby, I’ve watched him draw on that courtroom experience to shape his views and guide his decision making,” Feinstein said.
Neil Kinkopt, a law professor at Georgia State University, said he believes Blumenthal “is committed to doing the job of the Judiciary Committee.”
While high-profile hearings, like the one held on the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, made Blumenthal a sought-after guest on CNN, MSNBC and other news networks, Kinkopt said Blumenthal does his job “even when the cameras are not rolling.”’
Blumenthal said the Kavanaugh nomination was a low point for him on the committee.
“The Kavanaugh proceedings were very difficult, on a basic, human level,” he said. “Because, of course, they divided members of the committee. But also because a sexual assault survivor was demeaned and degraded and denounced… It was just painful.”
Kavanaugh’s confirmation was almost derailed by the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor who said the nominee had sexually assaulted her at a house party when they were in high school. In the end, however, Republicans dismissed Ford’s accusations, or said she was confused about the identity of her attacker, and confirmed Kavanaugh.
Blumenthal said his proudest moment on the Judiciary Committee was when the panel hammered out a bipartisan, sweeping immigration bill in 2013 that would have both tightened border security and given hundreds of thousands of young immigrants, known as Dreamers, a path to citizenship. Dreamers are children who were brought to this country as undocumented infants and children by their parents.
“We literally sat around the table, it was the last old-fashioned markup on any piece of legislation in the committee on any major piece of legislation,” Blumenthal said. “We were the whole committee, with drafts, offering amendments, amending the amendments, sidebar conversations, hammering out a bill. And that bill passed the United States Senate by an overwhelming, bipartisan majority.”
The bill, however, was never given a vote in the then Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives.
“It was one of the unrecognized and unwritten tragedies in this country,” Blumenthal said. “Think of how the world would be different now if we had passed the immigration reform bill. I mean, I don’t think Donald Trump would be president.”