In 1992, Dianne Feinstein was one of five women elected to the U.S. Senate in “The Year of the Woman”—a wave of female candidates who swept into Congress, in part, as a reaction to the mishandling of sexual-harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee.
Nearly three decades later, Feinstein herself stands accused of almost exactly the same conduct that helped launch her national political career: the mishandling of sexual assault allegations, this time against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The five-term senator’s decision to withhold from her Democratic colleagues a letter penned by Prof. Christine Blasey Ford, alleging that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were both D.C.-area high-school students, has drawn harsh rebukes from progressives. Feinstein’s Democratic opponent in the November general elections is now claiming that that the senator’s behavior raised “serious questions” about her judgment.
“The American people deserve to know why the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee waited nearly [two] months to hand this disqualifying document over to the federal authorities,” state senator Kevin de León, Feinstein’s challenger, said in a statement, “and why Sen. Feinstein politely pantomimed her way through last week’s hearing without a single question about the content of Kavanaugh’s character.”
The nation’s longest-serving current female senator has faced opposition from the left since her tenure as the centrist (relatively speaking) mayor of San Francisco in the late 1970s, a trend that continued into Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle even before the assault allegations became public knowledge. Feinstein’s casual apology to Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings earlier this month over interruptions by left-wing protesters was deemed “ridiculous” by Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice, a liberal dark money group that hopes to defeat Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Now, Feinstein risks being caught up in a wave of progressive frustration with the Democratic Party’s status quo.
“Unfortunately, Sen. Feinstein’s choice to keep this information in the dark is just one example of a larger pattern of failure in Democratic Party leadership,” said Nasim Thompson, the communications director for Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee that has seen a rash of success in backing insurgent left-wing candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley in Democratic congressional primaries. “That’s why Democrats are getting voted out.”
Current polling shows Feinstein with a comfortable lead over upstart de León, but with roughly a third of California voters currently undecided, and with a seat on the nation’s highest court in the balance, continued scrutiny of Feinstein’s decisions around Kavanaugh could prompt those voters to break for de León, a former state senate pro tempore.
Feinstein has publicly defended her decision to keep private a letter originally sent to a Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) in late July, in which Ford described an alleged encounter with Kavanaugh in which he drunkenly attempted to sexually assault her while they were both in high school.
“From the outset, I have believed these allegations were extremely serious and bear heavily on Judge Kavanaugh’s character,” Feinstein said in a statement released on Sunday, after Ford came out publicly. “However, as we have seen over the past few days, they also come at a price for the victim.”
The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer, both veteran reporters of sexual misconduct scandals involving high-profile figures in media and politics, have reported that Feinstein’s staff characterized the alleged incident as “too distant in the past to merit public discussion,” and that Feinstein felt the committee should focus on Kavanaugh’s legal, rather than personal, background.
Feinstein’s office called these claims “not accurate.”
“Sen. Feinstein has repeatedly said her decisions were based on the victim’s request for anonymity, but once the media leaked the existence of the letter, she referred it to the FBI,” Tom Mentzner, Feinstein’s communications director, told The Daily Beast. “That’s the long and short of it.”
Not everyone on the left is convinced that Feinstein should be attacked for preventing the release of Ford’s letter. Liberal billionaire donor Tom Steyer, one of de León’s most high-profile supporters, told The Daily Beast that Feinstein, who just this year drafted legislation requiring the governing bodies of amateur athletics groups to report sex-abuse allegations to law enforcement, made a difficult judgment call to protect Ford’s identity.
“I feel very badly for Sen. Feinstein, because I think she was in a very tough situation,” Steyer said in an interview. Describing Kavanaugh as an “extremist,” Steyer, who endorsed de León and has contributed to his campaign, said that the bigger mistake would be for Democrats to think that their business can be done in Washington in a “collegial and friendly” way going forward.
“We need to be very clear and very decisive going forward and to understand that this is a confrontation with a radical right-wing group and they are trying to basically force their ideology down the throats of the American people,” Steyer said.
Ford’s own attorneys have defended Feinstein, as well.
“We do think that Feinstein did well by her, and we do think that people took this decision away from her, and that’s wrong,” Debra Katz, one of Ford’s lawyers, told the New York Times. “If the #MeToo era teaches us anything, it’s that a person gets to choose when, where and how, and now this person is going to be injected into a life-altering blood bath.”
Republicans, for their part, clearly smell blood in the water, and have characterized the timing of the letter’s release as a calculated bid by Feinstein to overturn Kavanaugh’s nomination in the eleventh hour.
“It would be the ultimate miscarriage of justice if [Republicans] allowed a senator who sat on a damaging charge, and did not send that charge to the FBI, and did not share it with the committee—it would be the ultimate miscarriage to allow that senator to hijack that process,” Matt Schlapp, a prominent Trump surrogate and chair of the American Conservative Union, told The Daily Beast. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal accused Feinstein of “not liking the odds of defeating Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation,” and therefore finding “a devilishly clever way to head it off after all.”
President Donald Trump, who has himself weathered more than a dozen accusations of sexual misconduct and sexual assault, has told those close to him that he believes that the accusations are part of a liberal “conspiracy” to prevent the confirmation of his second Supreme Court nominee.
Now that Ford’s accusations and her identity have been made public, Feinstein has joined her fellow Democrats on the Judiciary Committee in calling for the postponement of the committee’s impending vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination, as well as allowing Ford and Kavanaugh to testify as to the allegations under oath. Doing so, Feinstein joined the other Democrats in saying, might prevent the committee from committing the same mistakes that helped prompt her rise to the U.S. Senate in the first place.
—with additional reporting by Gideon Resnick