1 of 7 | Robert F. Kennedy Jr. accuses Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., of slandering him during a House committee hearing Thursday after she questions comments he made likening masking and the COVID-19 vaccine to the Holocaust. Photo by Jemal Countess/UPI | License Photo
July 20 (UPI) -- Democrats and Republicans did not hold back from talking over each other and trading jabs during a House judiciary subcommittee hearing on the "weaponization" of the federal government on Thursday.
The hearing featured testimony from Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., but the tension along the dais took center stage. Chaired by Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the committee sparred over everything from the rules and processes of such a hearing to its underlying purpose.
Other witnesses were Emma-Jo Morris, the former New York Post reporter who published the story about Hunter Biden's notorious laptop in 2020; Maya Wiley, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; and John Sauer, former Missouri solicitor general.
The stark contrast between the interests of the political parties was most evident as several trends emerged in the hearing. Chief among them was the way in which Democrats and Republicans prefaced their questions to the witnesses and which witnesses that they called upon.
Republicans prefaced many of their questions by positioning federal agencies as agents of censorship against information that is critical of President Joe Biden and his family, as well as unfounded theories about the COVID-19 vaccine. Kennedy and Morris were the primary witnesses called by Republican committee members.
Democrats led their questioning by highlighting Kennedy's conspiracy theories about COVID-19: that the virus was engineered to target Caucasian and Black people and to spare Jewish and Chinese people. Questions were then mainly directed to Wiley, who expanded upon the damages of targeted misinformation and racist or anti-Semitic rhetoric in the public sphere.
Jordan repeatedly called "time" as witnesses responded to Democrats, while allowing Republican queries to run a minute or more over time, leading to several heated exchanges. When Democrats several times called for a point of order, Republicans shouted that their colleagues were attempting to again "censor" witnesses, specifically Kennedy.
Claims of censorship
"It's my time. Do not censor the witness," Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., shouted at ranking member Rep. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I.
Democrats moved to enter executive session on the basis that Kennedy violated a committee rule regarding potential defamatory testimony. The House rules were decided by the Republican majority, who several times accused Democrats of trying to censor Kennedy. The motion failed in a 10-8 vote.
"No one was trying to stop him from testifying, but not to give him the megaphone that this group has allowed him to have," Plaskett said.
When Kennedy made his opening statement -- after Jordan briefly forgot to swear in the witnesses -- he argued that his comments and beliefs have been misrepresented by fellow Democrats and the media.
More than 100 Democrats had signed a letter urging House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Jordan to rescind Kennedy's invitation to testify.
"This itself is evidence of the problem that this hearing was convened to address. This is an attempt to censor a censorship hearing," Kennedy said. "Censorship is antithetical to our party. The First Amendment was not written for easy speech. It was written for the speech that nobody likes you for."
Kennedy said tactics are being used to silence him that are similar to the McCarthyism of the 1940s and 1950s to label left-leaning figures as communists.
'Never been anti-vaccine'
Kennedy contended that he does not oppose vaccines.
"I've never been anti-vaccine but everybody in this room probably believes that I have been because that's the prevailing narrative," he said. "The only thing I've asked for -- I believe vaccines should be tested with the same rigor as other medicines and medications."
Kennedy is listed as a producer of several documentaries that are critical of vaccines and public health agencies, including The Real Anthony Fauci, Vaxxed II: The People's Truth and Infertility: A Diabolical Agenda.
He has also hosted panel discussions with well-known COVID-19 vaccine critics and founded the Children's Health Defense, a nonprofit organization that is infamous for promoting disinformation about vaccines.
"Speaker McCarthy and Chairman Jordan affirmatively chose to give this a platform. To elevate this rhetoric to give these harmful, dangerous views a platform in the halls of the United States Congress," Plaskett said. "That's endorsing that speech. They have co-signed on idiotic, bigoted messaging. All of this is to show by their conduct over and over again that any attack on Joe Biden to get Donald Trump back in the White House is what they need to do."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., offered Kennedy the opportunity to "correct his statements and repair some of the harm he's caused," noting that violence against Asians and anti-Semitic activity is on the rise in the United States.
"For centuries, Jews have been scapegoated and blamed for causing illnesses like the Black Plague and more recently COVID. It's true and well-documented this pernicious form of anti-Semitism led to centuries of discrimination," she said.
"Yet last week, you floated a baseless conspiracy theory. Your bizarre, unproven claim echoes that same historic slander of labeling Jews and Chinese people as a race. You do see that, yes?"
Kennedy said Wasserman Schultz was misstating his remarks, that he was describing a study from the National Institutes of Health. She would go on to skewer him for comparing the COVID-19 vaccination policies and mask-wearing to Jews hiding from Nazis during the Holocaust in public statements.
"You are slandering me incorrectly. What you're saying is dishonest," he responded.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., told Kennedy that he was not invited to the hearing to testify against the use of censorship, but to be used politically by the Republican Party to embarrass the president.
"You're an enabler in that today and it brings shame to a storied name that I revere," Connolly said. "I began my political interest with your father and it makes me profoundly sad to see where we have descended today in this hearing."
Kennedy is the son of Robert F. Kennedy, the late U.S. attorney general, and nephew of former President John F. Kennedy.
'Hack and leak'
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., brought the focus back to the suppression of Morris' story about Hunter Biden's laptop, positioning the decision to block the story on social media as critical in influencing the results of the 2020 presidential election.
"People said they would have changed their vote had they been aware of the Hunter Biden laptop story," she said, stating that a poll from TIP Insight Digital Services reflects this. The poll was conducted among 1,000 adults in 2022.
Morris claimed that the FBI knew in 2020 that the laptop was real and that social media companies were being primed for months to dismiss such a story as part of a Russian "hack and leak" operation.
"What was more scandalous than the reporting itself, though, was the fact that it exposed the unholy alliance between the intelligence community, social media platforms and legacy media outlets," Morris said.
Special Agent Joseph Ziegler, an IRS veteran and one of the whistleblowers in the laptop case, testified to the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday that the investigation into Hunter Biden's laptop was "hamstrung" by the Justice Department.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on artificial intelligence in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Friday. Photo by Yuri Gripas/UPI | License Photo