In Santa Barbara on Sunday, Senator Dianne Feinstein warned that U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s legal beliefs could shield Donald Trump, “a president who thinks he’s above the law.”
“We’re at an apex of presidential authority,” California’s senior U.S. Senator told more than 200 people at the 48th annual luncheon of the Democratic Women of Santa Barbara County, at the Four Seasons Biltmore, as she compared Trump and Kavanaugh's view of the presidency to that of “an oligarch.”
"This president believes he is above the law. And this nominee believes that the president cannot be investigated, cannot be tried, is actually supreme," she said. "And I find that is something that an oligarch would have, not an American president."
The 85-year old Democratic incumbent, now seeking her fifth term, stopped short of declaring that she will vote against Trump’s nomination, an old school (and increasingly rare) display of Senatorial courtesy pending a scheduled Sept. 20 Judiciary Committee vote on the conservative U.S. Court of Appeals judge.
She made clear, however, that Kavanaugh’s stances are unsupportable, not only his sweeping view of presidential authority, but also past opinions and testimony to the committee last week about challenges to the Affordable Care Act, gun control and abortion rights.
Will SCOTUS roll back Roe? Repeal of the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion has long been a goal of conservative Republicans and the evangelicals who are a crucial constituency of Trump and the GOP. Democrats and pro-choice advocates fear that Kavanaugh finally will tilt the court far enough to the right to nullify the decision.
“Roe was a long time coming,” Feinstein said. “Kavanaugh is the deciding vote.”
She pointed to two pro-choice Republicans, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska as key to whether Kavanaugh is confirmed. Republicans control the Senate, 51-to-49, but the defections of the two GOP women could block him from the court, if the Democrats vote as a bloc. That is far from certain, however, because a handful of Dems are seeking re-election in states won by Trump in 2016, and opposing his nomination would open themselves to fierce Republican attacks.
“We’ll see what happens,” Feinstein said of the two, who pro-choice organizers are heavily lobbying. “We’ll see if it changes.”
The Mueller factor. Most striking, however, were her comments about Kavanaugh’s perspective on the immunity of a president from investigation, outside of congressional procedures for impeachment. In his testimony, he avoided direct answers about whether or not he would support a challenge to the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller; Democrats in recent days increasingly have highlighted the issue, however.
For example, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Sunday used nearly identical language as Feinstein against Kavanaugh: “But the issue of the moment clearly is this situation with the Mueller investigation,” he said in a TV appearance, “and the important element that we shouldn’t overlook is Kavanaugh has been explicit in saying the president should not be subject to investigation or prosecution during his term in office.”
Feinstein is opposed for re-election by Democratic state senator Kevin de Leon, who has harshly criticized her for her failure to be more disruptive during the committee hearing.
“We should be praising the protestors and standing outside with them, not apologizing for their actions,” he tweeted last week, after the often starchy Feinstein expressed annoyance with the loud protests that anti-Trump demonstrators conducted from the Senate gallery. “We need a senator from California who will stand up and #RESIST not #ASSIST.”
Names in the news. A who’s-who of prominent local Democrats attended the event, including state Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who served as mistress of ceremonies, and Assembly member Monique Limon; Supervisors Janet Wolf and Joan Hartmann; Goleta Mayor Paula Perotte; SB city council members Jason Dominguez, Eric Friedman, Oscar Gutierrez and Kristen Sneddon; SB school board members Kate Parker and Wendy Sims-Moten; Goleta school board member Luz Reyes-Martin; city college trustees Marsha Croninger and Peter Haslund; former Rep. Lois Capps; former mayors Helene Schneider and Sheila Lodge of SB and Margaret Connell of Goleta; UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang and wife Dilling, Notable by her absence was Mayor Cathy Murillo.
Feinstein’s remarks in the Loggia Room of the Biltmore came in a question-and-answer session with Rep. Salud Carbajal, whose role was to serve one softball after another, e.g. “What has been your greatest accomplishment in the Senate?”
There was some entertaining political drama just below the surface. At one point, Carbajal forthrightly declared, “We need to send Senator Feinstein back” to Washington; a few feet away sat Jackson, who has strongly endorsed de Leon.
Whether Feinstein is aware of Hannah-Beth’s allegiance, she gave Jackson a shout-out for her legislation blocking Trump’s effort to expand oil leasing and drilling off the California coast, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed on Saturday. “We’re all one family,” Jackson smiled later.
L'Shana Tova. After the luncheon, Feinstein attended a $500-a-person fundraiser with about 50 donors at the Montecito home of artist Nancy Gifford and her husband Michael. She then flew with her husband, investor and UC Regent Dick Blum, to her home in San Francisco to celebrate the Jewish High Holidays.
During her introductions, Jackson asked for 10 seconds of silence for the late Betty Stephens, a major Democratic patron and one of the founders of the women’s organization, who died last month.
(The Santa Barbara Independent also is publishing a version of this story in this week's edition),
Images by Marian Shapiro: Dianne Feinstein speaks at the Biltmore; Feinstein at a fundraiser at Nancy and Michael Gifford's home; the Senator and former Supervisor Susan Rose; Salud Carbajal poses a question; Mistress of Ceremonies and Kevin de Leon supporter Hannah Beth Jackson; with strange man wearing his name tag sideways.