WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's nominee to replace Brett Kavanaugh on a high-profile appeals court said Tuesday she cringes at some of the language she used as a college student in writing about sexual assault, race and equal rights for women.
Neomi Rao told the Senate Judiciary Committee that writings in which she criticized affirmative action and suggested that intoxicated women were partly responsible for date rape do not reflect her current thinking.
"I like to think I've matured as a thinker, writer and indeed as a person," she said at a confirmation hearing for a seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Trump nominated Rao for the seat left vacant when Brett Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court.
Rao, who currently serves as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, said there were "certainly some sentences and phrases" from her college writing in the 1990s that "I would never use today."
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who recently revealed she was raped by her boyfriend in college, said Rao's writings "give me pause," in part because of the message they send to young women who may be reluctant to report a rape.
Rao called rape a "horrible crime" and said anyone who commits rape should be prosecuted. Her comment that women should stay sober to avoid placing themselves at risk was merely "common sense" advice that her own mother gave her, Rao said.
Rao, 45, worked in the George W. Bush White House but has never tried a case in state or federal court.
Rao, who would be the first South Asian woman to serve on a federal appeals court, said her experience in the White House, and as a former Judiciary Committee staffer, law professor and Supreme Court clerk, qualified her to join the D.C.-based appeals court, widely viewed as the nation's second-most important court.
"I believe my practical and scholarly experience fits well" with the panel, Rao said. The American Bar Association said Monday it has deemed her "well-qualified" for the appeals court.
On her previous writing, Rao told senators that "perhaps I was idealistic" in writing opinion columns that were intended to be provocative.
Liberal activists and some Democrats have seized on Rao's writings, in which she also derided LGBT rights as part of a "trendy" political movement and questioned the science behind global warming.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he hoped the Senate would not "crush" such youthful idealism "or punish people for that," while Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said there was "nothing disqualifying" in Rao's writings.
But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he was appalled at Rao's statement dismissing racial and gender oppression as "myths."
Rao told Durbin she had no doubt that such oppression was real. She also said she believes in equal rights for women and LGBT people and in the "overwhelming" scientific consensus that climate change is real.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said he was less interested in Rao's college writings than in her current work at the White House, where she plays a key role in Trump's efforts to roll back federal rules and regulations. Whitehouse said he believes Rao has worked to protect corporate interests, polluters and the National Rifle Association.
Rao said she and Trump have successfully pushed deregulation that "gets government out of the way" and helps small businesses and other companies create jobs.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said Rao has "led the Trump administration's efforts to abolish regulations protecting consumers, the environment and students." One rule in particular, to increase fuel economy standards for cars, is based on a law Feinstein co-authored.
"Not only did Rao advance a flawed justification for freezing those standards, she indicated she would rule against an agency's ability to write the standards," Feinstein said,
Shiwali Patel, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center, called Rao a "rape apologist" and said her promotion to the D.C-based appeals court would endanger women.
"Barely a few months after the country heard from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford about sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh, a rape apologist could potentially fill his seat on the D.C. Circuit," Patel said.
In a 1994 opinion column, Rao wrote: "Unless someone made her drinks undetectably strong or forced them down her throat, a woman, like a man, decides when and how much to drink. And if she drinks to the point where she can no longer choose, well, getting to that point was a part of her choice."
A good way to avoid a potential rape "is to stay reasonably sober," Rao added.
She also said Yale has "dedicated itself to a relatively firm meritocracy, which drops its standards only for a few minorities, some legacies and a football player here or there."
Senate Republicans pushed back against Rao's critics, saying her writings were not outside the mainstream. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said her advice not to drink to the point of losing self-control was good advice for men and women.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he was alarmed by Rao's broad view of presidential power. Rao said in a recent interview that the president should be able to fire the heads of independent agencies such as the Federal Reserve.
Coons asked whether the president could fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Rao declined to answer, calling it an ongoing political matter that may come before the court.