April 08, 2022

Chris Coons

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) discusses the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court but says public trust in the institution is falling. He responds to Russian war crimes in Ukraine and assesses Biden’s legislative agenda to date.

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President Biden’s closest ally in Senate…This Week on Firing Line. 

 

Coons: How many opinions have you written as a judge, your honor? 

KBJ: At least 570 opinions.

He’s a longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a key player on Foreign Relations.

Coons: If Vladimir Putin were to use tactical nuclear weapons, we need to communicate clearly that that would have severe consequences. 

Senator Chris Coons is known for forging relationships across the aisle. And as another Democrat from Delaware. 

Biden: Senator Coons is there 

He’s also known as President Biden’s eyes and ears in the Senate. As war rages abroad, polarization deepens at home, and the Democrats look ahead to a challenging midterm election, what does Senator Chris Coons say now?

‘Firing Line’ with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by: Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation, The David Tepper Charitable Inc, The Fairweather Foundation, The Asness Family Foundation and by, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, Damon Button and The Simmons Family Foundation. Corporate Funding is provided by Stevens Inc. and Pfizer inc.

HOOVER: Senator Chris Coons, welcome to Firing Line.

COONS: Thanks, it’s great to be on with you, Margaret.

HOOVER: You are a Democratic senator from Delaware and you sit on the Judiciary Committee– 

COONS: Yup. 

KETANJI BROWN JACKSON

HOOVER: –where just this week you voted to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson on the Supreme Court. 

KAMALA HARRIS:  The yeas are 53. The nays are 47 and this nomination is confirmed.” 

HOOVER: One hundred and fifteen nominees have preceded her, but not one has been a black woman. In the Judiciary Committee hearings, you cited the iconic Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges being escorted into her public school in New Orleans by federal authorities. What does Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation mean to you and to the country? 

COONS: Well, first, I was hopeful that we would see a return to a normal confirmation process, a respectful, reasonable confirmation process where she’d be asked engaging, tough questions about her approach to serving as a judge, her record, her credentials, her character, her family background. And for much of the hearings that mostly happened. There were, of course, some fireworks. There were several of my colleagues who questioned her in ways that seemed way beyond an appropriate confirmation hearing. And so part of what brought Ruby Bridges to mind was not just the historic nature of her nomination, her being the first, but how she held herself through those assaults. I questioned immediately following the junior senator from Texas, and his questioning was particularly forceful and vigorous. And I could see, you know, in the tightening of her jaw and the, you know, sort of that she was, you know, sort of doing this and maintaining. But these are 30 minute questioning rounds. And when someone in front of your children is accusing you of all but aiding and abetting child pornography, being not just soft on crime, but nearly a criminal yourself, of having sent your children to a school that teaches horrific Marxist race theory to children, it’s it’s sort of hard to maintain your composure. And I thought, as I said in my closing remarks on our week of confirmations, that she gave us a clinic in judicial temperament and in maintaining her poise, something that should not have been as necessary or challenging as it was. So what does it mean to me that Judge Jackson is now Justice Jackson? She has impeccable legal credentials. She has a remarkable life of service in the law. She will bring to the bench a sharp, analytical mind and some needed new perspectives. As someone who practiced both as a trial court judge and as a federal public defender, someone who clerked at all levels. And she will be the first black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. I think it’s important to hold both of those in our mind as we think about what she will bring to the court. I am hopeful that we can in the future confirm other nominees. But as my colleague, Senator Graham of South Carolina, suggested, if there’s a change in control in the Senate, we may not be able to confirm more nominees in the coming few years. 

HOOVER: You described the treatment of her by some of your colleagues. Your words to describe that behavior was that it was abusive. Fortunately, there were some Republicans like Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, who also criticized the confirmation process. When they announced their intention to vote for her, Senator Collins said that the process is quote, “broken.” Senator Murkowski said that there has been, quote, “corrosive politicization of the review process.” 

COONS: Right. 

HOOVER: Do you agree with that? 

COONS: Yes. Look over the last couple of years there’s a history in both parties of confirmation hearings where some of our members got well outside the lane of advice and consent. I am grateful for the votes of those three Republican colleagues and more importantly, their message. And I think this is a moment where we all need to look hard at where we’re going because the Senate only has a few absolutely essential constitutional roles. I’m also an appropriator. Our appropriations process this year was as broken as it’s ever been. So if a key part of our job is confirming nominees and this administration is more than a year into its service and there are still critical positions vacant – ambassadors, judges, senior positions in the administration – and we are really struggling to confirm justices and judges, and we’re really struggling to complete our appropriation process anything like on time, any clear-eyed review of the current Senate suggests we are at a critical point. 

HOOVER: Keeping it just on the process, the confirmation process for justices, you know, this process only recently became one that looks like a party line vote. 

COONS: Yes.

HOOVER: Justice Breyer, whom Justice Jackson clerked for and whom she replaces, received 87 votes in the United States Senate. How do you get the Senate back to Article Two of the Constitution, advice and consent? 

COONS: It’s going to take determined work by members of this committee from both sides. And, frankly, it’s going to take action for us to defang or at least remove a fair amount of the power of outside groups that have emerged that really are funding and fueling an awful lot of this. Without getting into any private conversations, there are senators of both parties who’ve said to me over the 12 years I’ve been on Judiciary, ‘You know, I would have voted for her or for him, for this or for that, but the outside groups were just pressing so hard.’ This happens with every high profile judicial nominee. And Senator Whitehouse in particular of Rhode Island speaks frequently about the corrosive impact of dark money groups. We have a bill called the Disclose Act that’s bipartisan that would simply reduce the ability of these groups, without any attribution, to spend tens of millions of dollars on campaigning for or against nominees. And that’s had a really critical impact on undermining our effectiveness as a committee.

HOOVER: I mean, have you felt the brunt of those groups yourself? 

COONS: Of course. 

HOOVER: You know, in reflection, there were three Trump nominees, none of whom you voted for. 

COONS: Yes 

HOOVER: What role does the activism play versus the responsibility you feel to advice and consent? 

COONS: To be blunt, I had a primary opponent in 2020 who was principally funded by a group that was angry at me for voting for too many Trump judges. They were very critical of my vote for a few circuit nominees whose judicial philosophies are more conservative than mine, who I thought were very qualified. So this is the core question. Can you vote for a district court or a Circuit Court nominee, let alone a nominee to the Supreme Court, who’s highly qualified, who’s got a clean record, who’s served well, but who leans in the opposite direction of your party?

HOOVER: Who doesn’t share your judicial philosophy. 

COONS: Doesn’t share your judicial philosophy. We’ve gotten to the point where that is fraught. If you do that, there are political consequences. Both sides, both parties, and there’s well-funded, well-resourced groups prepared to make sure that if you make such a decision, you’ll hear about it. And that’s part of the accelerating partisanship of the judicial confirmation process. I would say that they started it, that it was first done from the other side. But you know,seriously- 

HOOVER: They say the same thing. 

COONS: They say the same–

HOOVER: Robert Bork.

COONS:  Exactly. This is a long dynamic, it has a long history. 

HOOVER: It does have a long history. But as you think about the current forces that have increasingly polarized the process and your own votes for Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, do you stand by them or do you think in a different world you might have thought about those words differently? 

COONS: I’ve recently been talking about that with some colleagues. So my office now was John McCain’s office. And I think a lot about John. I was in that exact office with a bipartisan group of senators as Judge Gorsuch was being nominated for the Supreme Court. And I was digging into his record and philosophy, and there was one case, the Hobby Lobby case, where he’d written the Circuit Court and I just was really struggling with it. I would say Gorsuch was the closest for me, where I knew him, I had a sense of him, his writings– 

HOOVER: But is it about judicial philosophy or advice and consent? 

COONS: That’s the point. That was that was the point at which I first voted against a nominee for the Supreme Court, not based on his qualifi– eminently qualified, great temperament, good writer, strong record of service. But I disagreed with his philosophy. And Senator Graham and I had a very forceful exchange at that point where he said to me, ‘I voted for Kagan. I voted for Sotomayor. If you’re not willing to vote for Gorsuch. What’s that mean?’ And so I will own that I’m a part of this problem and recognize that with Senator Graham saying in this process, he’s voting against her, he was the last one on the committee who had a history of voting for qualification, not for or against philosophy. 

HOOVER: It is unusual to find a senator who is willing to recognize when they have made an incorrect vote in hindsight, looking back. But you’re willing to do it and you’re willing to say it publicly when you think that’s the case.

COONS: The thing that most of the many things about John McCain that impressed me. The film that was made near the end of his life, For Whom The Bell Tolls, that film directly, head on, confronts several different instances in his life that he says, ‘I was wrong.’ Virtually all of my colleagues who write autobiographical books tend to leave out the chapters of which they’re not proud. I think it shows enormous strength for someone, particularly of John, of Senator McCain’s record in service to be willing to say, ‘you know what, in hindsight, this moment in this campaign, this moment on the floor, this vote, that’s something that I regret and I’m going to work on it.’ If you read the framers and founders, they thought a virtuous body politic, a community of people who cared more about the future of the country than about their own careers was essential. And so I’m stunned at how often my colleagues feel perfectly comfortable. Sorry, I’m being very critical today. 

HOOVER: No, no, no, no. Look, look, we could use more of it in our politics.

COONS: In common parlance, it is now widely acceptable to just say, ‘Well, I’m not voting for that now because I have a primary or because of my election.’ That wasn’t historically the case. You wouldn’t just publicly say, ‘Oh, the reason I’m voting this way is my own reelection!’

HOOVER: Would it help to take cameras out of the room?

COONS: A lot. [laughter]

HOOVER:  If it was just, it was all just like the court, right? 

COONS: I have been in many proceedings where the fact that there are cameras in the room have made a big difference. I recently advised someone, a friend. He came in for advice on how his confirmation would happen in the Foreign Relations Committee. I said, Oh, this is going to be awful. You know, I have several colleagues who are going to rip your face off and question your patriotism. He sort of looked at me. What are you talking about? My last confirmation was perfect. I said yes, it was on the intelligence committee. There were no cameras. It was in no way publicized. It was classified. Everyone behaved themselves. They asked good questions. This one’s televised. And so there are members who will be taking their clips of them grilling you and making you squirm and they’ll raise money off it. 

JUSTICE THOMAS

HOOVER: Some of your Democratic colleagues on the Judiciary Committee have called for Justice Thomas to recuse himself of any cases that come before the court related to the Capitol attack on January 6th because of his wife, Ginni Thomas, who is a conservative activist and what has become clear that were a number of communications into including text exchange with Mark Meadows encouraging and supportive of an effort that would have overturned the election. Some of those colleagues of yours have actually signed a letter saying that he should recuse himself with such. I noticed you didn’t sign the letter. Why not? 

COONS: I think justices are responsible for their own ethical conduct. This is an issue I am turning to look at now that we’ve completed the confirmation of Justice Jackson, which frankly was my principal focus of the last week. A superficial reading of what I’ve seen in the press strongly suggests that this particular issue in episode has cleared the threshold of a reasonable person would think that the justice should recuse himself, given the forcefulness, the stridency, the relevance of the messages that are now public between his spouse and leaders in the previous administration. So I’m going to engage with this in the next week, and I may well join in that. All federal judges, except the justices of the Supreme Court, serve under the strictures of a code of judicial ethics. In fact, Senator Cornyn and I recently passed a bipartisan bill that will increase the requirements of transparency around financial holdings. 

HOOVER: To be clear, Ruth Bader Ginsburg often ruled on cases in which her husband had a financial interest. And you know, there’s this question about recusal. Ought one only recuse himself if there is a financial interest involved? You know, the question of somebody’s spouse’s political activism– 

COONS: Right.

HOOVER: – feels like it’s in a somewhat different category. And one could also apply the analogy of Justice Kagan, solicitor general in favor of Obamacare, but then ruled on its constitutionality from the bench. 

COONS: Excellent mastery of the record, counsel. There are a wide array of cases we can and should discuss about judicial ethics and the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary generally. This particular case that you’re asking me about goes so centrally to the heart of democracy. You know, typically you don’t ascribe to a judge the political opinions, the free speech activity of their spouse, even their business activity. But this is one that is very uncomfortable because of how closely it goes right to the very center of ordered liberty.

HOOVER: Even though it’s a spouse. 

COONS: Yes. 

HOOVER: There are Democrats in the House who say that the revelation of these texts actually is grounds for impeachment. Is that too far? 

COONS: From what I see, yes. 

HOOVER: You talked about your bill that you’ve sponsored with John Cornyn of Texas, Senator Cornyn from Texas, and it would focus on making sure that Supreme Court justices and federal judges post stock trades and financial holdings online within 90 days. Justice Roberts wants no part of this. 

COONS: I’m fairly certain– 

HOOVER: To be fair, Justice Roberts believes that the court should should police itself and – 

COONS: They should. That would be far preferable. And so for our Congress to prescribe ethical roles and rules for the federal judiciary is something I did approach with great hesitation. But they have to act. I mean, this is meant as a ‘OK over to you.’

HOOVER: Like if you don’t, we will? 

COONS: Yeah. You know, it would be in the best interests of everyone, of our democracy or our constitutional order of the federal judiciary for them to act in reasonable ways to come up with an approach to transparency about their economic interests that is appropriate and timely. 

HOOVER: Without some kind of reform do you– is it your concern that the court risks losing public trust? 

COONS: Yes, it is clearly losing public trust. And there are things that we can do as the advice and consent branch to reduce the ferocity and the politicization of the confirmation process. And there are things they can do to improve the transparency in the conduct. Look, compared to most judiciaries in most countries around the world ours remains exceptional, outstanding, globally truly the gold standard. 

UKRAINE

HOOVER: Ukraine

COONS: Yeah. 

HOOVER:  The Ukrainian military has shown extraordinary resistance to Vladimir Putin’s assault. And this week we saw new evidence of war crimes perpetrated by Putin’s military in Bucha, where many bodies of civilians were found bound and shot execution style as Russian forces fled. President Biden has not only doubled down on his assessment that Putin is a war criminal, but he said that Putin should face trial, which you agreed with. How can the United States and its allies ensure that Putin is held accountable for his actions? 

COONS: Well, first, we can ensure that Ukraine wins and that Putin doesn’t. We are the country that likes to pride ourselves on being, you know, the principal champion of freedom and democracy in the world. We have to sustain and support them. This is a turning point of the 21st century. This is as critical a moment as 1939 in European and world history. And I’m grateful for the ways in which President Biden has pulled together NATO and EU and European partners. That’s a unified response that is really important for us to sustain. 

HOOVER: Is it sustainable? 

COONS: It’s going to be very difficult. And I’ve been having conversations with a number of colleagues about the role that energy will play. Energy is Putin’s greatest weapon because frankly, in democracies, your average voter across Europe and North America cares more about paying another euro, another dollar for a gallon of gas or having their home heating bills go through the roof than necessarily, day to day, they do about the fight for democracy in Europe. And leadership here by members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, and our president, is going to consist of having that common goal of advancing freedom in Europe and fighting for democracy. If the Ukrainians are willing to literally fight and die for it, can’t we sustain six months of slightly higher energy prices? Can’t we come together and do something to reduce? 

HOOVER: Maybe six months, but maybe not longer. 

COONS: That’s the challenge, is we may have a shrinking window. 

BUCKLEY

HOOVER: When Joe Biden first ran for president in 1987, he attended a Democratic forum that was hosted by William F. Buckley Jr. for the original Firing Line, where he and the other candidates discussed the United States policy towards the Soviet Union. Take a look at this. 

BIDEN:We have an anti Soviet imperative. It leads this administration in almost all instances to put everything in the context of a superpower conflict. And then when that conflict ensues in their mind to take the only arrow out of a foreign policy quiver that the Soviets can compete with us on, that’s the military arrow, and take the other three out, which are economic, political and diplomatic, and try to break them over our knee and say, we won’t use them. Uh, I just think that, uh, I just think we’re incredibly shortsighted in our foreign policy. 

HOOVER: In seeing your old friend then running for president, he finally was elected president and you were on the short list to be his secretary of state. He reportedly told you that he needed you in the Senate. 

COONS: He did tell me that he needed me in the Senate, not just reportedly 

HOOVER: You know, there he is talking about sort of the econ– the three arrows in the quiver: the economic arrow, the political arrow, the diplomatic arrow that you have in order to to force some kind of deterrence. And in our current circumstances with Ukraine and with Russia, deterrence has failed or it did fail. If you were secretary of state, is there anything that you would pursue? 

COONS: First, Secretary Blinken’s doing an incredible job. President Biden has the secretary of state he needed, he wanted, he deserved. The clip there from then Senator Biden about the other tools, other than military, our major tools, our diplomacy, development and economic engagement. And I’ll simply agree with the point that we today are underfunding those resources. We’re not doing what we can and should in the world from a development and a public health perspective. I’ll give you one quick example. In the vote in the U.N. to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there were about two dozen countries that abstained, African countries, that have noticed that during this pandemic we now have hundreds of millions of surplus vaccine doses that we are not distributing. They had to rely on Chinese generosity and Russian generosity. The Russians and Chinese sent their vaccines to dozens and dozens of countries that couldn’t get ours. Their vaccines don’t work against Omicron. Ours do. And despite throwing myself at the wall trying to get Republican votes for an international supplemental just this past week, we didn’t. The other thing that’s about to happen, Ukraine is the breadbasket that provides the grain that feeds countries from Jordan to Pakistan, from Egypt to Sudan to Yemen. There are already food riots in several countries. I was talking to senior leaders in the Department of Defense who said, yes, they’re concerned about the national security consequences of hunger. Your great-grandfather knew something about the importance of food aid in the midst of war. The invasion of Ukraine and the destruction of their ability to export grain from their Black Sea ports is creating already a wave of hunger and instability. What should we be doing? Senator Graham and I are already working on a hearing next month. And we’re going to be saying to our colleagues, this is a moment for us to come together and show the world we’ve got the resources, we’ve got the values, we are coming to your aid. 

HOOVER: How are you going to persuade Americans that they should care about coming food shortages halfway around the world? 

COONS: I think it’s a three part argument. One is just our own selfish concerns that where there is disorder and disease and difficulty, eventually it has consequences for us. Secretary Mattis famously said, “If you don’t provide more funding for food aid development, diplomacy, then you’re going to buy more ammunition for the DOD because we’re going to end up in more wars in more places.” Second, it is this contest. People care less about democracy versus autocracy when their children are starving, and they’ll accept oppression if they can have stability. And right now around the world, China is telling countries they have a better model than we do. January 6th left a stain, a shadow. I went to 15 countries last year on behalf of our country. Every single foreign minister, defense minister, head of state asked me about January 6th and whether our democracy will survive. Trust me–

HOOVER: What did you tell them? 

COONS: Yes. That it was gravely concerning, but that they should remember that we held, that the Senate returned to the chamber, that we confirmed the election. Our real test is going to be 2022 and 2024 and whether we can sustain a peaceful democratic transition. 

HOOVER: Senator Chris Coons, thank you for your time. Thank you for coming to Firing Line.

 COONS: Thank you, Margaret.