WASHINGTON, D.C. — During the confirmation hearing on Feb. 5, as expected, Neomi Rao — President Trump’s nominee for the D.C. Court of Appeals — was raked over the coals and put through the wringer by Democratic Senators on the Judiciary Committee about her past controversial writings and current actions on the rights of sexual assault survivors, gender and racial equity and the environment.
Some of the toughest questioning of Rao was by Sen. Kamala Devi Harris (D.-Calif.), a 2020 presidential contender, who told Rao that while having a “conversation with Sen. Ernst, you said that women should take certain steps to avoid becoming a victim.”
“What steps do you have in mind that women should take to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault?” she asked.
Rao clearly rattled, replied, “It’s just sort of the common sense idea about…for instance, excessive drinking. That was the advise that was given to me by my mother.”
“It is just a way to make it less likely,” she added. “(But) It is not to blame the victim. Rape and sexual assault are horrible crimes. But we are talking about what can you do to keep yourself safe.”
Harris then asked, “Are there other steps you believe women should take to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault?” to which Rao said, “That is one of the issues that I discussed. I am not sure if there are others.”
“So, do you believe that if women do not take these steps, she is at fault or partially at fault for what happens to her,” Harris continued, to which Rao, shot back, “No.”
Harris, a former prosecutor and erstwhile Attorney General of California, then asked, “So, what is the significance of taking these steps?’
Rao said, “It’s just the significance of trying to avoid becoming a victim of any crime. We take different steps to try to protect ourselves from horrible crimes such as rape, and you know, I think what we want is for women to not be victims.”
Harris then went after Rao for her strong opinions on date rape and sexual assaults where the latter had written in 1993 that “date rape exemplifies the attempts of the nurture feminist to develop an artificial, alternative world in which women are free from sexual danger and no always means no.”
“In your current view, when does no not mean no?” she asked.
“Senator, no means no,” said Rao. “I regret writing that when I was in college.”
Harris also pressed Rao on her other claims in an article in the 1994 issue of the Yale Herald that a good way for a woman to avoid being date raped is “to stay reasonably sober,” and that if a woman drinks too much to where she can no longer choose whether to have sex, “getting to that point was her choice.”
“Senator, I was only trying to make the commonsense observation about the relationship between drinking and becoming a victim,” said Rao.
“Do you stand by those comments?” interjected Harris. “I do not,” Rao replied, and added, “I would not express myself that way today.”
Later Harris tweeted, “Here's the bottom line: survivors of sexual assault should not be blamed for the trauma they've experienced. Neomi Rao's prior writings about sexual assault are completely unacceptable and her responses to my questions today were deeply troubling.”
Before Harris’ grilling begain, it was a Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, who posed some of the most probing questions about Rao’s perspective on victims of date rape.
Ernst, who recently disclosed she was raped by a former boyfriend, told Rao that she was disturbed by her provocative columns while a college student in the 1990s on date rape, saying it does “give me pause,” particularly regarding her apparent “blame the victim” contention, and indicated that she was undecided if she would vote to confirm Rao in what is expected to be a clear party line vote.
"I had a chance to review a number of your writings while you were in college. They do give me pause. Not just from my own personal experiences but regarding messages we send young women everywhere,” Ernst said.
In a 1994 column while an undergraduate at Yale, Rao wrote: “It has always seemed self-evident to me that even if I drank a lot, I would still be responsible for my actions. A man who rapes a drunk girl should be prosecuted. At the same time, a good way to avoid a potential date rape is to stay reasonably sober.”
Rao, clearly on the defensive at the hearing presided over by the new Judiciary chairman Lindsay Graham (R.-S.C.), said, "To be honest, looking back at some of those writings, I cringe at some of the language I used.”
“I like to think I’ve matured as a thinker, writer and a person,” she said, and added, “I certainly regret any implication of blaming the victim.”
“Nobody should blame the victim,” Rao emphasized, even as she tried to rationalize that her suggestions about women drinking too much and making themselves vulnerable was meant as “common sense observation” about “actions women can take to be less likely to become victims.”
But she told Ernst that "I don't think I would express myself in the same way"
The Washington Post reported that more than a dozen people, mostly young women, lined up outside the committee room wearing black T-shirts with quotes from Rao’s column on date rape and the message #RejectRao.
Meanwhile, Sen. Chris Coons (D.-N.J.), told Rao, “Ms. Rao, there has been a great deal of discussion about your college writings, which, I would agree, are at the very least cringeworthy and have deserved and have got a great deal of attention.”
He also submitted for the record a letter that he said was “from 54 South Asian women, who are civil rights attorneys, who are law professors, who are advocates for (sexual assault) survivors, who at length challenge some of your assumptions in your college writings.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D.-Hawaii) later noted that “the number has grown to 65,’ from the number Coons had noted.
Although Rao expressed regrets, Republicans led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Texas) jumped to her defense, arguing that the Senate Judiciary Committee “should not be a theater for mischaracterizing or twisting nominees’ records of years.”
He said, “What is also causing Democratic umbrage is that you also said that college students should refrain from drinking to excess.”
Cruz said, “I would note that is very good advice for a college student—whether make or female,” and said he saw nothing wrong with Rao’s contention that women ought to stay sober to avoid being date raped.
“I have two daughters,” he said, “and fortunately they are 8 and 10, and we are not dealing with this yet. But, I certainly intend to give them the advice not to drink to excess. And it is unquestionably true that any college student that drinks to the point of getting drunk and losing control risks being a victim, risks being vulnerable.”
“There is certainly nothing disqualifying here,” chimed in Sen. Mike Lee (R.-Utah), adding, “Judicial nominations have become a blood sport,” clearly a reference to lingering bitterness over Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation battle.
Lee said Rao had done a "good job of explaining the content and the context" of her opinion articles in college and that "people grow, they learn, and we should allow those changes to be taken into account."
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R.-Tenn.), told Rao, “I have to tell you, what an amazing career you’ve had—University of Chicago Law, and then clerking in the Supreme Court, and then working in the White House, running a major regulatory agency. Quite a resume.”
And, then taking a hefty swipe at the Democrats, Blackburn said, “I find it interesting that much of the focus has been on writings that you did in your college years.”