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The Ashcroft Hearings

January 18, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, the perspectives of two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, and Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa. Welcome to you both. Senator Dianne Feinstein, after three days of hearings what have you concluded about whether he should be confirmed — John Ashcroft as Attorney General?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I haven’t concluded. I probably shouldn’t have done this show. But what I said to Senator Ashcroft was that I was going to give him a full and fair hearing. I’ve tried to be attentive, to listen to all the testimony. And I’ll tell you what I believe. I believe that a president is entitled to his Cabinet. I believe there is a difference in a confirmation of a member of the Cabinet as opposed to a federal judge. I also believe that we have a very controversial nominee, a man who has had a polarizing influence in the past.

Now the question is, and the interesting thing for me is, what the future would be. And the John Ashcroft that we questioned was a very different figure. He made very positive statements on many issues that concerned me, with respect to Roe vs. Wade, with respect to guns, with respect to how he saw his role as Attorney General. And what he clearly said was, while he was an elected public official, he was an advocate. He was involved in policy; that he sees this job as very different. He sees the job as one of administration and one of enforcement, not making the law but seeing that the law is carried out.

And he made some commitments that were very big commitments — that in his view Roe vs. Wade is settled; that he would not bring a case to overturn Roe; that he would carry out the Freedom of Access to Clinics Act, that he would not… that he would support the assault weapons legislation, which he had opposed, that he would support its reauthorization; that he would support closure of the gun show loophole and a number of other things. Now, there is one thing that is very deeply troubling to me and that was the handling of Ronnie White. And I need to work this out in my mind — so those in California listening to the show, you don’t need to give me more pressure; I have plenty of it already, and I will work this out in my own mind. And let me tell you what’s deeply troubling to that nomination. None of this surfaced during any of the Judiciary Committee hearings.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking now about Ronnie White?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: That’s correct, and Senator Grassley and I both know that when there is deep concern over a nominee, it usually surfaces in the hearing. Something is said. Nothing was said. I was under the impression that both Senators were really supportive of this nominee. Then there was a delay and then it came out on the floor and suddenly the letter from the sheriff was on the floor; the situation changed; and we had a deeply polarizing situation. Republicans voted against the nominee. Democrats voted for the nominee. Now this didn’t have to happen that way. And I suspect much of it revolves around the Johnson case, which was a terrible case, an incendiary case, still very strong feelings. The sheriff was present in the hearing room. On the other hand, there is evidence that John Ashcroft did appoint African Americans. The first to the appellate court — did appoint women. So I’ve got to reconcile all of these things in my mind, and I will at the appropriate time.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Grassley, where do you think the last three days have left this nomination, as you look at your colleagues, as well as your own views?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: I think for the most part he will be confirmed for the very simple reason that a lot of people give the edge to a president to have a cabinet that he wants to help him enforce the laws of the United States. I voted for Janet Reno in 1993. She is not a conservative like I am. She doesn’t believe in capital punishment like I do but she did take an oath to uphold the laws of the land and she was able to suggest capital punishment for a certain convict or maybe more than one.

And it’s a case of when you are Attorney General you take the oath of office to enforce the law of the land. And it’s entirely different than being a member of the United States Senate where you make policy. As Attorney General you carry out policy that somebody else made. Except for the advocacy that the President of the United States would order Attorney General Ashcroft to do — he’s an enforcer of the law, not a policy maker. Beyond that, I think that the process by which Senator Dianne Feinstein went through to explain the difference between being a Senator and being an Attorney General ought to answer most of the concerns of the people in the United States Senate, particularly of the Democratic Party who had policy differences with Ashcroft as a Senator.

When it comes to the judge, Ronnie White, I think it’s very important that one of the these statements was on your program as I was listening here, that Ronnie White would not refer to John Ashcroft as a racist — the other point being that nowhere during his testimony did he ask the Senate not to confirm John Ashcroft. Now maybe he thinks….

MARGARET WARNER: Ronnie White, you mean.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Ronnie White did not ask -

MARGARET WARNER: The other way.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: — that the Senate should not confirm John Ashcroft. In his testimony today –

MARGARET WARNER: Today.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: — Ronnie White did not say that the Senate should not confirm John Ashcroft. Maybe the implication of these statements is that he should not be confirmed but he did not ask for it and he said that he’s not a racist. John Ashcroft, in conclusion, for my part of this program, unless you want to ask me another question, is based on the fact that John Ashcroft is a very ethical, upright person. Nobody questions that. But I don’t think they give enough emphasis to the moral character of this person to do what’s right even if he might disagree with the law that he would be enforcing.

MARGARET WARNER: You’ve both given such detailed answers that we only have a minute or minute and a half. But let me just ask you both, starting with Senator Feinstein. The key issues seem to be can a man or woman who believes so passionately one way set aside those beliefs and enforce laws as Attorney General that he or she passionately disagrees with on a moral basis — were you convinced that John Ashcroft can do that?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I can’t yet answer that question. And I was very touched – just a few moments ago, he called because Senator Kyl and I had a dialogue on the committee about the Freedom of Access to Clinics Act and the meaning of words. And I mentioned well the Senate was 50/50 and if there was – if John Ashcroft didn’t live up to his promise, we hold oversight hearings and I said I’ll certainly importune the chairman of the committee for a hearing. And Senator Kyl said you don’t need to do that; we will go together to see him and we will see that that is carried out. And Senator Ashcroft apparently heard that and he called and said he would welcome that, that if he deviates from his commitment, he would have an open door to hear us and that he does not intend to deviate from the commitment. Now, that — I mean that was a rather definitive statement to me just a few moment ago.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Grassley, briefly your thoughts on that point, whether he can set aside his beliefs.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: He can set aside his beliefs. It’s odd that one of those — there has been some condemnation of him because of his religious beliefs. It’s a sad commentary that John Ashcroft’s Christian religious beliefs can’t be considered an asset in the same vein that Joseph Lieberman’s religious faith was considered an asset during the last election.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: May I say something on that point?

MARGARET WARNER: Just very quickly.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I really don’t think that’s an issue. I don’t think – I have not heard any member of the Senate make any comment on his religious beliefs.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: In the news media it’s talked about. I heard the term "extreme religious views" yesterday by somebody on TV.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Senators, and we’re on TV but we’re out of time. Thank you both very much.