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Sen. Coons Questioned Kavanaugh About His Views On Executive Power

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For the first time in three days, Brett Kavanaugh does not have to sit in front of senators deciding whether he is fit to be the next Supreme Court justice. The Senate Judiciary Committee hears from high-profile witnesses who will speak to Kavanaugh's character, bringing to a close a week of confirmation hearings that have at times gone way off script.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING MONTAGE)

JOHN CORNYN: And the punishment for contempt.

CORY BOOKER: Bring it. Bring it. Bring it.

CORNYN: So I would correct the senator's statement, there is no rule. There is clearly a rule that applies.

BOOKER: Then apply the rule and bring the charges.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Mr. Chairman. Mr. Chairman.

KAMALA HARRIS: I will ask you again, and for the last time. Have you ever been part of a conversation with lawyers at the firm of Kasowitz Benson Torres about special counsel Mueller or his investigation?

BLUMENTHAL: I want to talk to you about President Trump's attacks on the judiciary. They have been blatant, craven and repeated.

MARTIN: Those are the voices of Senators John Cornyn, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Richard Blumenthal. Another lawmaker who was questioning Kavanaugh this week, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He joins us now from his office in Capitol Hill.

Thanks for being here, Senator.

CHRIS COONS: Good morning, Rachel. Good to be on again.

MARTIN: Has your opinion of Brett Kavanaugh changed as a result of anything you learned through these hearings?

COONS: Well, I was glad that we had the chance, over several days, to really press Judge Kavanaugh. And I focused on the issue of presidential power. I've known Brett for 30 years since we went to law school, at roughly the same time. We clerked in the same courthouse in Wilmington. And I've long known about him the things that Republicans focused on relentlessly. He is a nice man. He's a good husband and father. He's a high school basketball coach. He volunteers at a homeless shelter. And that seemed to be the only thing they wanted to talk about.

But he also has some very extreme views on the Constitution. And given our current context, I focused my questioning on his statements, his writings and his legal decisions that emphasized a view of the presidency that I think could be dangerous in our current context. Judge Kavanaugh has written repeatedly, a president's power to fire a special prosecutor at will can't be constrained.

MARTIN: Were you satisfied when you put those questions to him?

COONS: He was quite artful, I think, at avoiding directly answering my questions.

MARTIN: You have stated that President Trump selected Kavanaugh with, in your words, an eye at protecting himself. Do you still believe that? Did you hear anything this week from Kavanaugh himself that dispelled you of that notion?

COONS: Look. I don't think Judge Kavanaugh can know exactly why President Trump chose him. But a number of senators made, I think, telling points about the timing of when Judge Kavanaugh moved from not being on President Trump's list of potential nominees to being on the list. And it did coincide with his writing a pretty striking case about abortion and with a number of his opinions and statements around presidential power. And I think both of those may well have influenced his being finally selected.

MARTIN: I mean, the fact of the matter is Democrats don't have the votes needed to prevent Brett Kavanaugh from sitting on the Supreme Court. As a result, you and your colleagues have tried several tactics to delay or derail the hearing throughout the week. The latest came yesterday. Senator Cory Booker complained about documents about Kavanaugh that should have been released - turned out they had already been cleared for release. Senator Booker was kind of using it in a theatrical way in the moment. But can you explain, what was in those emails that was so important?

COONS: The core issue here was that there were hundreds of thousands of documents that we weren't able to use or we weren't able to review in a timely way for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court of someone who was so active, so central in the Bush White House and where having access to the email traffic and to the documents back-and-forth may well have revealed more about his views on presidential power, on abortion, on torture and whether he was fully truthful in his 2006 confirmation hearing. We thought those were all relevant.

And a big document dump of about 40,000 documents was finally given to us the night before the hearing. If we were in front of any judge in America, he would have given a continuance. He would have extended the time so we could have read through them and processed them. All the document back-and-forth led the Democrats on the committee to conclude that they were rushing this through in an effort to avoid the inconvenience of the judge having had some opinions while he was a partisan in the White House in the Bush administration and derail his confirmation.

MARTIN: Well, then would you go so far as to say, if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, he will sit there without having the full and transparent nomination process having been completed?

COONS: Yes.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, Senator, I want to ask you about fallout from the anonymous New York Times op-ed that's been generating a lot of headlines over the last day or so. In it, the author says, early on in the Trump administration, there were whispers among Cabinet members about the 25th Amendment, which is a way to remove a president without impeaching him. Elizabeth Warren, your colleague in the Senate, has said that if senior officials in the Trump administration feel as if President Trump is unfit to serve, as the author of the piece does, they should come public and explore the 25th Amendment. Do you agree?

COONS: The 25th Amendment is a very difficult way to remove a president, almost as difficult as impeachment. And it was designed for a moment when a president was clearly incapacitated. The 25th Amendment allows the president to argue, publicly, his fitness. And I do think it would precipitate a long, difficult, public, wrenching fight between the president and his core Cabinet that I'm not sure the Cabinet would ultimately win.

I do think it's important for folks who are serving in the administration and who have grave concerns about the president's fitness to be public about that because - and this was the point Judge Kavanaugh was making in response to my critique of him - is that the Constitution provides congressional oversight and congressional action as the central way to constrain a president.

My core concern is that special counsel Mueller be protected and, in particular, be protected from a mercurial president who's repeatedly threatened his own attorney general and this process with inappropriate interference.

MARTIN: Although Congress has yet to act on that.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

COONS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.