Sen. Harris' Russia Probe Questioning Gets Her Noticed Nationally

Jun 26, 2017
Originally published on June 26, 2017 7:50 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When the Senate intelligence committee meets, Kamala Harris sits at the far end of the row of lawmakers. But in the wake of several high-profile hearings, the freshman Democrat from California has maneuvered herself to front and center in the national conversation. Harris has asked aggressive questions, and she's also been aggressively cut off by fellow senators. NPR's Scott Detrow sat down with Harris to talk about her approach to the Russian investigation.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Kamala Harris spent decades as a prosecutor and says she approaches her seven minutes of questions as, in her words, a quest for the truth.

KAMALA HARRIS: That means asking a lot of questions that are focused on facts and not necessarily feelings. (Laughter).

DETROW: And she can be dogged about it.

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HARRIS: Then you feel free to discuss those conversations?

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HARRIS: Can you please tell me what you mean when you say appropriate?

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HARRIS: Did you have any communication with any Russian businessmen or any Russian nationals?

DETROW: As national audiences have tuned in to round after round of Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, Harris' rapid-fire questions have created some tense moments. Here she is peppering Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

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HARRIS: Are you aware of...

JEFF SESSIONS: I know...

HARRIS: ...Any communications?

SESSIONS: ...A lot of people were at the convention. It's conceivable that somebody can...

HARRIS: Sir, sir, I have just a few...

SESSIONS: Will you let me qualify? I...

HARRIS: OK.

SESSIONS: ...If you - if I don't qualify, you'll accuse me of lying. So I need to be correct as best I can.

HARRIS: I do want you to be honest.

SESSIONS: And I'm not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous.

DETROW: A lot of your questions had rankled the people you're talking to - have made them uncomfortable. Why do you think that is?

HARRIS: Well, I think that there have been circumstances where the person that I've been asking the question doesn't actually want to be direct and clear about what they know or what happened.

DETROW: Harris says she's been getting a lot of what she calls winking and trust-me responses from the Trump administration officials testifying.

HARRIS: I need more than trust me at this point. I need to know what happened. I need to know that there will be accountability. I need to know that there's going to be transparency.

DETROW: And then there's the interruptions. Two separate times, Harris has been cut off by more senior Republicans on the committee.

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HARRIS: Mr. Chairman, respectfully,...

RICHARD BURR: Mr. Rosenstein, will you...

HARRIS: ...I would point out that this witness has joked with the - as we all have...

BURR: ...The senator will suspend.

HARRIS: ...At his ability to filibuster.

DETROW: The interruptions, or manterruptions (ph) as they were called on Twitter, kicked off a lot of talk about sexism, especially since no male senators were cut off. Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted that silencing Harris, as she put it, was unbelievable. I asked Harris whether she thought it was sexism.

HARRIS: I think more than anything they - that there were folks who did not want to answer my questions.

DETROW: The exchanges put Harris in the spotlight, but for her, that isn't new.

Here's NBC's Matt Lauer back in 2009 when Harris was still San Francisco district attorney.

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MATT LAUER: I mentioned in one of the teases for your segment, Kamala, that you have been called by some a female Barack Obama.

DETROW: There are broadbrush similarities in background and style. The most important Obama comparison is probably this. Just like Obama in 2005, Harris has shown up in the Senate marked as a rising Democratic star, even as a possible presidential candidate; this at a time when Democrats everywhere are really frustrated.

Democratic consultant Bill Burton worked for Obama. He says the political dynamics Harris faces in the Senate are a lot different than what Obama navigated as a freshman lawmaker.

BILL BURTON: You sit in the back. You stay quiet. You don't make too much of a splash. You build your relationships and kind of go from there. Now there's no time for that.

DETROW: Burton says that's because of the urgency the Trump presidency has created for Democrats. But it's also because Obama changed things. Now a freshman lawmaker suddenly has the potential to be a much more viable national figure. For Harris, the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation is a high-profile and high-stakes assignment. The one-time California attorney general says an investigation is like a tree. One branch can lead to another branch and then another. And if you follow along, you're never sure where you'll end up.

HARRIS: I think it would be a mistake for anyone to draw conclusions. At this stage - at this stage of the process, it's still very much in play.

DETROW: There probably won't be another nationally televised hearing anytime soon. But it's clear Harris and the rest of the committee have many more months of work ahead of them. Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.