During Sen. Kamala D. Harris’ 25-year career in law enforcement, she has established herself as a formidable presence in the courtroom, on the campaign trail and ultimately in government.
She grew up watching her African American dad and Indian American mother protest for civil rights in Berkeley and took that fierce fight for justice with her to law school. She served two terms as San Francisco’s first female district attorney and was the first woman elected as California’s attorney general.
It’s the résumé of hard-charging legal advocate, not unlike many others in Congress, where she is now a freshman senator from California. Those who know her also know she doesn’t back down.
While such attributes are often rewarded in Washington, they’re not going over so well for Harris – at least with some male colleagues and cable commentators. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee responsible for investigating Russian interference with the 2016 election and connections between the country and Trump campaign officials, Harris has landed a star role in the country’s political drama.
She has used her prosecutorial background to ask pointed, tough questions – and for that she is being admonished. One former Trump campaign adviser on CNN called her “hysterical.”
To those who have observed hearings on Capitol Hill, especially high-visibility televised hearings involving partisan subjects, there has been little or nothing unusual about Harris’s behavior. Members get a small amount of time to ask questions and make their points. Unfriendly witnesses are inclined to string out their answers and let the clock run.
The result, one side rushing, the other stalling, is never pretty. The phrase, “just give me a yes or no answer,” is so often heard it ought to be engraved on the Capitol portico.
But twice now, Harris has been interrupted and chastised by male senators for her style of questioning during the hearings. It happened first last week during questioning of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and then again Tuesday when Attorney General Jeff Sessions was testifying.
Each member of the committee had a limited number of minutes to question Sessions, who was forced to recuse himself from the Russia investigation after it was revealed that he had failed to disclose his contacts with Russian diplomats during the campaign.
Sessions and Harris spoke over each other throughout the interaction; Sessions seemed eager to slowly and thoroughly deliver his response, and Harris seemed just as eager to push him along, especially when his responses weren’t addressing the answers she sought.
At one point, Sessions said he was “not able to be rushed this fast.”
“It makes me nervous,” he told Harris.
Sessions refused to answer numerous questions from the panel, citing what he called a long-standing Department of Justice policy that prevented him from commenting on private communications with President Trump.
Harris asked if the policy was written down, to which Sessions gave no clear answer but instead explained the “principle” of it.
“Sir, I am not asking you about the principle,” Harris interjected. “I am asking – when you knew that you would be asked these questions and you would rely on that policy, did you not ask your staff to show you the policy that would be the basis for your refusing to answer the majority of questions we are asking you . . .”
At that moment, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cut in and appealed to the committee chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.
“The witness should be allowed to answer the question,” McCain said.
“Senators will allow the chair to control the hearing,” Burr said, pointing to McCain. “Senator Harris, let him answer.”
Sessions then went on to describe the principle, at length.
Before Harris got her “yes or no” answer, Burr cut her off and said her time had expired.
After the exchange, Harris tweeted: “It was a simple question. Can Sessions point to the policy, in writing, that allows him to not answer a whole host of our questions today.”
The scene was nearly identical to one that played out during a hearing last week, when Harris was questioning Rosenstein.
From him, Harris also asked for a simple “yes or no” answer to her question, a phrasing that is routine in hearings as members rush to ask as many questions as they can.
Would he sign a letter giving Special Counsel Robert Mueller full independence from the Justice Department during his own Russia probe, she asked.
“Senator, I’m very sensitive about time and I’d like to have a very lengthy conversation and explain that all to you,” Rosenstein responded.
“Can you give me a ‘yes or no’ answer?” Harris asked.
“It’s not a short answer, senator,” Rosenstein said.
“It is,” she said, cutting him off. “Either you are willing to do that or you are not.”
The exchange felt like a contentious courtroom battle between a prosecutor and a key witness, one that apparently irritated McCain.
He interrupted Harris and told the chairman Rosenstein should be able to answer the question.
Harris continued interrogating the deputy attorney general, again pressing him to give a “yes or no” answer.
Then Burr interjected.
“Will the senator suspend?” Burr interjected. “The chair is going to exercise its right to allow the witnesses to answer the question, and the committee is on notice to provide the witnesses the courtesy, which has not been extended all the way across, extend the courtesy for questions to get answered.”
As with Sessions, Harris never got her answer before time expired.
Harris spokesman Tyrone Gayle told the Associated Press that the senator “has run countless investigations, and will follow the facts wherever they may lead to get the truth for the American people. That can only happen when witnesses answer questions,” he said.
Both hearing exchanges have prompted women to discuss aloud and online how Harris’s experiences with her fellow senators are only highlighting the treatment average women, especially women of color, experience every day.
Women of color “understand what Kamala Harris is dealing with,” Tanzina Vega, a CNN reporter who covers race and inequality, wrote on Twitter. “Raise your hand if you’ve been shushed, silenced, scolded, etc.”
Her words were retweeted nearly 2,000 times and garnered more than 3,000 likes.
“I thought so,” she responded. “Thanks ladies.”
Later Tuesday night, during a segment with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, former Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller said Sessions “knocked away some of the hysteria from Kamala Harris and some of the Democrats who wanted to make this a big partisan show.”
CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers quickly seized on Miller’s use of “hysteria,” a word with historic sexist undertones grounded in a psychological disorder tied to women’s physiology.
“How was Senator Kamala Harris hysterical?” Powers asked.
Miller said he thought there was no real effort to get a real question answered.
“I think she asked a lot of questions,” Powers said. “She was very dogged. I wouldn’t say she was any more dogged than Senator Ron Wyden was, would you say that?” (Wyden also had a contentious exchange with Sessions.)
“I think she was hysterical,” Miller said. “I don’t think Senator Wyden was trying to get to the bottom of answers either.”
“But he wasn’t hysterical,” Powers said. “She was.”
The CNN commentator and Trump supporter then chimed in: “Hysteria is a neutral quality,” he said.
“And yet,” replied Powers, “it’s just women that usually are called hysterical.”
Harris’s treatment has not gone unnoticed.
The admonishments from men have in fact elevated Harris’s profile, prompting comparisons with her with fellow female Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, who was censured during Sessions’s confirmation hearing earlier this year and inspired the rallying cry, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
After a contentious exchange between Harris and Sessions during Wednesday’s intelligence hearing, Harris tweeted: “The women of the United States Senate will not be silenced when seeking the truth.”