Anti-Trump conservatives rally to back Vanita Gupta, Biden’s pick for key Justice Dept. post

Vanita Gupta Tuesday, March 21, 2017 in Washington. (Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks)

WASHINGTON – A group of prominent anti-Trump conservatives is launching a $1 million ad campaign in support of civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta’s nomination as associate attorney general, an effort aimed at countering attacks from hard-right Republicans who have painted her as a radical liberal.

Organizers behind the “Confirm Gupta” effort said they intend to showcase bipartisan support for her nomination and highlight her record of working with Republicans and police organizations while leading the agency’s civil rights division during the Obama administration.

The ad campaign is being spearheaded by Defending Democracy Together, a collection of moderate Republicans launched in opposition to Donald Trump’s presidency whose founders include columnist Bill Kristol and author Mona Charen. The centerpiece will be a 30-second spot to air on cable networks and the Sunday political talk shows, organizers said, along with a digital component aimed at persuading key senators, including moderate Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to vote in favor of her confirmation.

“Gupta has a record of building bridges across partisan divides,” according to the ad, which was shared exclusively with The Washington Post. “So let’s stop playing politics. Confirm Vanita Gupta and let’s build an America we can all believe in.”

The Senate has scheduled a March 9 confirmation hearing for Gupta and Lisa Monaco, President Joe Biden’s nominee for deputy attorney general. Senators held a two-day hearing for Attorney General-nominee Merrick Garland last week, with Democrats and some key Republicans indicating they will likely vote to confirm him.

“There are Republican groups that have kicked up opposition to most of Biden’s nominees, Vanita in particular,” said GOP strategist Sarah Longwell, co-founder of Defending Democracy Together and another group, Republican Voters Against Trump. “The attacks against Vanita are particularly unfair and untrue based on what every Republican I talked to has said about her, trying to paint her as radical when she has the support of police groups. It is knee-jerk and doesn’t comport with reality of the people who know her among conservatives and Republicans. We wanted to help elevate those voices.”

The dynamic highlights a fissure inside the GOP between those loyal to Trump who have pressed a highly confrontational approach aimed at hobbling Biden’s presidency and a far smaller group of more moderate figures who opposed Trump and have sought to shift the party away from his brand of grievance politics.

Defending Democracy Together, which launched in 2019 to promote the “rule of law,” previously pressured GOP lawmakers to support Democratic efforts to impeach Trump in early 2020 and also ran ads accusing Trump of seeking to use the presidency to enrich himself. But the group has remained on the fringe of a party whose base remains beholden to Trump.

This month, Gupta, 46, came under attack from the Judicial Crisis Network, a deeply conservative organization which launched an $800,000 ad campaign calling her a “dangerous appointee” and attempting to tie her to the social justice movement to “defund the police” while also casting her as soft on terrorism and white nationalism.

Carrie Severino, that group’s president, called Gupta an “extremist” and a “liberal activist” in an editorial published on the Fox News website. Severino cited remarks from Gupta stating that the Justice Department should examine the investments in law enforcement agencies and consider “not just using a policing approach” to protecting communities to paint her as an “enemy” of law enforcement and suggesting she will wage “the far left’s culture war from her government post.”

The Conservative Action Project, founded by former attorney general Edwin Meese III, and several Republican state attorneys general also have targeted Gupta. Last week, Meese’s group called her an “anti-police radical with ties to extreme leftist groups.”

The Judicial Crisis Network did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Gupta’s supporters called the criticism a bad-faith distortion of her record and emphasized support for her from law enforcement groups, which have sent letters to the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsing her nomination.

During the campaign, Biden acknowledged “systemic injustice” in “law enforcement and the way in which it’s enforced.” But he said he is “totally opposed” to defunding the police and emphasized that local law enforcement agencies “need more assistance.” As a candidate, he embraced granting the Justice Department more power to investigate police misconduct, reducing the number of people who are incarcerated and eliminating racial disparities in sentencing.

On Tuesday, Longwell and other conservatives, including criminal justice reform advocate Marc Levin, will join the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, which Gupta helmed the past four years, at a news conference in support of her nomination. Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., and liberal advocates, including Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, also are slated to participate, organizers said.

James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said in an interview that he found Gupta to be “more than willing to listen” to the views of police officers during the Obama administration.

“She was always accessible and took our views into consideration. I’d like to think a number of her remedies we influenced in a positive way,” Pasco said, citing efforts to deal with police reform measures in Baltimore and Chicago. The FOP had endorsed Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Mark Holden, a former Koch Industries executive and chairman of Americans for Prosperity, said he found Gupta to be a “straight-shooter” when they collaborated on criminal justice reform and someone who is “willing to work with anyone to get the job done – or try to get the job done.”

“Obviously, she isn’t in favor of defunding the police. She has worked with law enforcement and done that for a long time,” Holden said.

The show of force for Gupta comes just days after the apparent collapse of another high-profile Biden nominee, Neera Tanden, whose path to lead the Office of Management and Budget appears all but dead after Manchin joined GOP senators in opposing her over past statements on social media that were critical of Republican lawmakers.

Wade Henderson, who led the Leadership Conference for two decades before Gupta took over, denounced the Judicial Crisis Network’s opposition to her as “nothing less than a blatant smear.”

In an interview, Henderson emphasized that “it is important when we have an individual who has garnered the breadth of supporters who are behind Vanita that we support ways to educate the center behind the nomination.”

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