On Monday, Washington political theater was in full force, and the stars were Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn.
With the cameras rolling during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Cruz and Cornyn assailed former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates over her refusal to carry out President Donald Trump’s executive order that barred refugees from seven majority Muslim countries for a period of time.
But the hearing was supposed to be about the impact of Russian interference in the 2016 election, not the decision that led to Yates’ firing.
Neither senator spent more than a minute of his allocated time talking about Russian interference. Both raised questions about the much-investigated email trail of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and a long-time adviser, Huma Abedin.
Neither Texas Sen. John Cornyn nor Ted Cruz spent more than a minute of his allocated time talking about Russian interference.
One exchange in particular between Cruz and Yates garnered viral attention.
Cruz read a portion of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the law that lets the president bar immigrants from certain countries if it’s in the public interest. Yates shot back with an additional portion of the Immigration and Nationality Act that she argued superseded the statute cited by Cruz.
Cruz and Yates, both accomplished lawyers, were now cross-examining one another. Yates argued that Trump’s executive order violated the Constitution, and that it was her duty to break with the president when his actions were deemed unconstitutional in her eyes.
Cruz shot back.
“In the over 200 years of the Department of Justice history, are you aware of any instance in which the Department of Justice has formally approved the legality of a policy, and three days later, the attorney general has directed the department not to follow that policy, and to defy that policy?”
“I’m not. But I’m also not aware of a situation where the Office of Legal Counsel was advised not to tell the attorney general about it until after it was over.”
The exchange attracted lots of attention on the internet, and many liberals were quick to lavish Yates, an Obama appointee, with praise.
“What was framed as a gotcha question was one that ended up being a home run,” said Texas Christian University politics professor Jim Riddlesperger of the exchange between Cruz and Yates. “In terms of understanding the substantive issues, the professional (Yates) knew it better than he did.”
Cruz ignored a question on the hearing from a reporter on Tuesday, and his office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
During a Tuesday press conference, Cornyn, who also asked Yates about her decision to defy Trump, suggested that FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to the Judiciary Committee last week was sufficient to address the impact of Russian interference in the 2016 election. He continued, though, that more probing is needed on the issue of Clinton’s emails.
“I think Director Comey has spoken to the investigations,” Cornyn said at the press conference. “There was no evidence of any crime being committed either yesterday or any time before this other than releasing classified information. We’re going to get to the bottom of this.”
But the biggest revelation during Comey’s testimony, that former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin sent classified emails to her ex-husband Anthony Weiner’s computer, turned out to be grossly exaggerated.
Riddlesperger said that Cruz and Cornyn, along with other Republicans, are concerned about Russian influence during the 2016 elections, but focusing on the issue does little to help the party because it delegitimizes Trump’s victory. Additionally, the classified and technical information that could help inform the public of the scope and techniques used by Russian hackers doesn’t make for good television.
Instead, it’s better politics to use high-profile hearings to focus on issues that make Republicans look good, like a White House appointee defying the new president because of her political allegiance to Obama.
Democrats and Republicans alike frequently use congressional hearings to score political points, and both parties use public statements made during hearings to attack the other side while campaigning.
“What happened yesterday was political theater, and almost nothing that came out of the hearing yesterday was constructive,” Riddlesperger said. “This is the irony of things going on in Washington these days: high profile political theater events that have little to do with the issue at hand.”