Politics & Government

In Russia probe, Kamala Harris gets buzz as Feinstein works behind the scenes

Sen. Dianne Feinstein is the power player, but Sen. Kamala Harris is becoming the star.

Methodical and measured, Feinstein, D-Calif., is the only Democrat serving on both the Senate Intelligence Committee and Judiciary Committee, putting her in a unique position to influence Congressional inquiries into Russia, the 2016 elections, the Trump campaign and President Donald Trump himself.

In recent weeks, she’s been seeking to use her seniority to push the Senate investigations into new territory following the June 8 testimony of former FBI Director James Comey.

Yet it is Harris, California’s junior senator who’s been in office five months, who’s grabbing the limelight. Her rapid-fire interrogations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other witnesses have exploded on social media, energizing her Democratic base and stirring more speculation that she’s positioning herself for a presidential run.

“The attention Sen. Harris is getting is not surprising,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist from Southern California. “She is incredibly ambitious...She is clearly a risk taker and it has worked for her. She has gotten very far, very quickly in politics.”

Along with other Democrats, Harris and Feinstein face a risk of overplaying their hands and looking too partisan, allowing Trump to credibly claim the Russia probes are a diversion. But unlike some California Democrats, the two senators have declined to join calls for Trump impeachment hearings, arguing that the investigations are in their early stages.

How those probes play out could shape their political futures.

Feinstein, 83, is in her fifth term and hasn’t said if she will run for a sixth next year. Recently, as the top Democrat on the judiciary panel, she has pushed Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to expand the committee’s role in the investigations, particularly involving allegations of obstruction of justice against the White House.

Sragow said she could play a “significant, possibly pivotal role” in the investigations, and so may be motivated to run again. “It could be she feels an obligation to make sure the country steers through this,” said Sragow, who once managed Feinstein’s first statewide campaign, an unsuccessful run for governor.

Harris, 52, has been trying to fend off reports she is planning a White House run a mere five months after being elected. While a 2020 bid might seem like a stretch, the Democratic field is wide open and the party is desperately looking for a new star. Barack Obama had been a senator for less than four years when he was elected president in 2008.

In comments to reporters, Harris has said she is focused on her current job and the work of the intelligence committee, and has also warned against turning the ongoing hearings into a spectator sport.

“This is certainly taking on a proportion of drama. Everyone is watching it. But this is not a television show. This is about the office of the President of the United States,” she said on NBC’s “Today Show“ hours before Comey testified. “It is critical that we find out what is going, what has happened, so we can get to the truth and move on.”

As Harris stresses the seriousness of the inquiries, she’s also working to pump up her own performance. Harris has 665,000 followers on her two Twitter accounts – more than twice that of Feinstein – and she and her staff use those channels to alert fans to the exact timing of her hearing appearances, and then provide play-by-play commentary.

“It’s unacceptable that Sessions - the top law enforcement official in the country – cannot name his legal basis for evading questions,” said one message from her account following the Attorney General’s testimony.

Kevin Eckery, a Sacramento-based political strategist and crisis manager, said it is clear Harris is working hard “to establish her brand” and energize her base. In the hearings, that cause has been helped by Trump surrogates who’ve attempted to discredit her in ways that backfired badly.

On CNN on Tuesday, former Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller called Harris “hysterical” for her interrogation of Sessions. That prompted a rebuke from CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers and also from women’s groups and Democratic rapid-response teams, who turned the comment into an Internet meme. “Bad move,” said Eckery, a senior aide to former California Gov. Pete Wilson. “That was the ultimate man-splaining putdown.”

At Tuesday’s intelligence committee hearing, Harris had only five minutes to get answers out of Sessions, and while she didn’t get much, she managed to rattle him.

A former California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney, Harris pressed Sessions on his claim that it was longstanding federal policy for U.S. attorneys general to keep their conversations with the president confidential. She asked him if had any documents to verify that policy, and Sessions responded he’d supply the committee with documents, “as appropriate.”

“Can you please tell me what you mean when you say appropriate?” Harris shot back, amid an exchange where they both talked over each other.

After Sessions said he couldn’t recall any talking with Russian businessmen at the 2016 Republican convention, Harris cut him off again, and Sessions objected.

“Will you let me qualify it?” the attorney general responded, his voice rising. “If I don't qualify it, you'll accuse me of lying. So I need to be correct as best I can. I’m not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous.”

Harris may have won political points with her Sessions questioning. She also generated wide publicity by twice being cut off by male Republicans in recent intelligence committee hearings, once by chairman Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina and then Tuesday by Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

But she has to be careful, said Sragow.

“The Senate club has always been marked by complex and ironclad etiquette,” he said. “When breached, that brings consequences.”

By contrast, Feinstein was firm but patient in her questioning at the intelligence committee hearing, which she believes was the wrong venue to hear from Sessions. Twice in recent weeks, once on June 9 and again on June 15, she has pressed Grassley to schedule hearings with Comey, Sessions, Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe and other figures who could share information pertaining to possible obstruction of justice.

In an interview last Sunday with CNN, Feinstein said she has served 24 years on judiciary and 16 years on the intelligence committee, and argued that the latter lacks expertise in obstruction of justice investigations.

“The judiciary staff are all lawyers, most very good lawyers,” she said. “So there is an opportunity to look at the law with respect to obstruction of justice, to hold a hearing and also to have those relative people come before the judiciary committee.”

On Friday, Feinstein warned of her concern that Trump will fire the Justice Department’s top officials leading the Russia investigation, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

“The message the president is sending through his tweets is he believes the rule of law doesn’t apply to him and that anyone who thinks otherwise will be fired,” she said in a statement.

Harris and Feinstein come from the same state and party, but their styles and political leanings are hardly similar. Harris, 52, has worked to appeal to the young left of the Democratic Party, voting against the nomination of John Kelly for homeland security secretary, for instance. Feinstein is a conservative on national security issues and more liberal on causes such as wilderness protection and gun control.

One trait they share is coyness about their political futures. In January, Feinstein had an artificial cardiac pacemaker installed. That has fueled speculation she may not run again, opening up the seat for one of California’s up-and-coming politicians, such as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Another possible contender would be Southern California Rep. Adam Schiff, a former prosecutor and the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. His statewide and national profile has soared with the Russia probes.

Eckery said he sees no signs of Feinstein slowing down or being unable to keep up with the pace of being a senior senator.

“For all the talk of Di-Fi moving on, she is bringing it,” he said. “She is doing her job, and if anything, she has been energized by events in Washington...She is going to leave when she is ready to leave.”

Stuart Leavenworth: 202-383-6070, @sleavenworth