In a hearing on November 17th, Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who, at eighty-seven, is the oldest member of the Senate, grilled a witness. Reading from a sheaf of prepared papers, she asked Jack Dorsey, the C.E.O. of Twitter, whether his company was doing enough to stem the spread of disinformation. Elaborating, she read in full a tweet that President Trump had disseminated on November 7th, falsely claiming to have won the Presidential election. She then asked Dorsey if Twitter’s labelling of the tweet as disputed had adequately alerted readers that it was a bald lie.
It was a good question. Feinstein seemed sharp and focussed. For decades, she has been the epitome of a female trailblazer in Washington, always hyper-prepared. But this time, after Dorsey responded, Feinstein asked him the same question again, reading it word for word, along with the Trump tweet. Her inflection was eerily identical. Feinstein looked and sounded just as authoritative, seemingly registering no awareness that she was repeating herself verbatim. Dorsey graciously answered the question all over again.
Social media was less polite. A conservative Web site soon posted a clip of the humiliating moment on YouTube, under the headline “Senator Feinstein just asked the same question twice and didn’t realize she did it,” adding an emoji of someone covering his face with his hand in shame, along with bright red type proclaiming “Time to Retire!!” Six days later, under growing pressure from progressive groups who were already outraged by her faltering management of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Feinstein released a statement announcing that she would step down from the Democrats’ senior position, while continuing as a non-ranking member of the committee. Feinstein’s office declined to comment for this article.
Feinstein first became nationally known for the grit she showed in 1978, when her fellow San Francisco city officials Harvey Milk and George Moscone were shot dead. She has had a distinguished twenty-eight-year tenure in the Senate, taking on a range of powerful interests, from gun-rights groups to the C.I.A. The moment marked a sad turning point for Feinstein and a reckoning for the Senate, which runs on the seniority system. The presumption has been that it’s up to voters to fire aging senators who can no longer effectively serve. But voters rarely do. As Paul Kane, who covers Congress for the Washington Post, wrote in 2017, the Senate was then the oldest in history. Its eight octogenarians were almost twice the number that had simultaneously served before. According to the Senate Historical Office, all of them held positions of vital importance to the country. And while several were regarded as wise and effective, others had disruptive health problems that clearly undermined the Senate’s ability to function.
Twitter and other social-media platforms are exposing lawmakers’ infirmities to new and harsher scrutiny, violating an unspoken culture of complicity and coverup. Prior to the recent reëlection of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Internet was ablaze with close-up photos of his bandaged, purple hands, setting off wild speculation about the health of the seventy-eight-year-old Republican from Kentucky. The physical and mental fitness of Trump, who is seventy-four, and Joe Biden, who is seventy-eight, have also been extensively covered. “In the 24/7 news cycle we have now, you can’t really hide,” one former top aide to Feinstein told me.
Some former Feinstein aides insist that rumors of her cognitive decline have been exaggerated, and that video clips taken out of context can make almost anyone look foolish. They also bridle at singling out her condition, because declining male senators, including Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina, and Robert Byrd, of West Virginia, were widely known by the end of their careers to be non-compos mentis. “For his last ten years, Strom Thurmond didn’t know if he was on foot or on horseback,” one former Senate aide told me. The former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, is said to have snapped at a staffer who claimed to be relaying what Byrd thought. “Knock it off,” Reid supposedly said. “Everyone knows it’s what you think.” In contrast, one former aide to Feinstein argues that, even if her faculties are diminished, “she’s still smarter and quicker than at least a third of the other members.”
But many others familiar with Feinstein’s situation describe her as seriously struggling, and say it has been evident for several years. Speaking on background, and with respect for her accomplished career, they say her short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic, accusing her staff of failing to do so just after they have. They describe Feinstein as forgetting what she has said and getting upset when she can’t keep up. One aide to another senator described what he called a “Kabuki” meeting in which Feinstein’s staff tried to steer her through a proposed piece of legislation that she protested was “just words” which “make no sense.” Feinstein’s staff has said that sometimes she seems herself, and other times unreachable. “The staff is in such a bad position,” a former Senate aide who still has business in Congress said. “They have to defend her and make her seem normal.”
Feinstein has always been known as a difficult taskmaster. She is said to have told someone applying for a job in her office, “I don’t get ulcers—I give them.” A stickler for detail, she demanded to see every page going out of her office with her name on it. But with her diminishing capacity, this has become increasingly difficult. The former Senate staffer who still works with Congress declared, “It’s been a disaster.” As the ranking Democrat, Feinstein ordinarily would be expected to run the Party’s strategy on issues of major national importance, including judicial nominations. Instead, the committee has been hamstrung and disorganized. “Other members were constantly trying to go around her because, as chair, she didn’t want to do anything, and she also didn’t want them doing anything,” the former Senate staffer said. A current aide to a different Democratic senator observed sadly, “She’s an incredibly effective human being, but there’s definitely been deterioration in the last year. She’s in a very different mode now.”
Tensions began erupting in the summer of 2018, during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when the other Democrats on the committee belatedly learned that Feinstein’s office had sat on Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were in high school, instead of immediately alerting them or the F.B.I. Ford had demanded that Feinstein keep the explosive charge confidential. But, inevitably, word of it leaked elsewhere to the media, triggering a second round of circus-like hearings that angered all sides.
The internal criticism grew more intense this fall over Feinstein’s handling of Amy Coney Barrett. Feinstein had bungled a question about abortion during Barrett’s 2017 appeals-court confirmation hearing, provoking conservative indignation by casting it clumsily as a question about Barrett’s extreme religious beliefs. “Dogma and law are two different things,” Feinstein observed. “The dogma lives loudly in you—and that’s a concern.” The backlash over the question effectively indemnified Barrett from any further questions about how her faith affected her judicial rulings.
According to several sources, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Minority Leader, was so worried that Feinstein would mismanage Barrett’s confirmation hearings that he installed a trusted former aide, Max Young, to “embed” in the Judiciary Committee to make sure the hearings didn’t go off the rails. He had done the same during Kavanaugh’s confirmation as well. Schumer brought Young in from the gun-control group Everytown to handle strategy and communications and serve as Schumer’s “eyes and ears” on Feinstein, as one Senate source put it. Schumer’s office declined to comment.
The precaution nonetheless failed. The Democrats’ strategy was to portray Barrett’s confirmation process as a travesty, jammed through the Senate in the final weeks before the Presidential election by hypocritical Republicans bent on using brute power to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with her ideological polar opposite. The Democrats sought to fire up their voters by highlighting the illegitimacy of the process. But, to the Democrats’ dismay, Feinstein instead hugged the Republican chairman of the committee, Lindsey Graham, thanking him for his “fairness” and for running “one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in.”
By the end of the confirmation hearings, public-opinion polls showed more support for Barrett than before they began. Progressive advocacy groups demanded that Feinstein step aside. Ilyse Hogue, the president of the reproductive-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, issued a statement accusing her of having failed to make clear that Barrett posed “a grave threat” to “every freedom and right we hold dear.” Instead, Hogue said, Feinstein had “offered an appearance of credibility to the proceedings that is wildly out of step with the American people. As such, we believe the committee needs new leadership.” Brian Fallon, the executive director of the progressive advocacy group Demand Justice, who was a former aide to Schumer, was even more blunt. “It’s time for Senator Feinstein to step down from her leadership position on the Senate Judiciary Committee,” he said. “If she won’t, her colleagues need to intervene.”
Schumer had several serious and painful talks with Feinstein, according to well-informed sources. Overtures were also made to enlist the help of Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum. Feinstein, meanwhile, was surprised and upset by Schumer’s message. He had wanted her to step aside on her own terms, with her dignity intact, but “she wasn’t really all that aware of the extent to which she’d been compromised,” one well-informed Senate source told me. “It was hurtful and distressing to have it pointed out.” Compounding the problem, Feinstein seemed to forget about the conversations soon after they talked, so Schumer had to confront her again. “It was like Groundhog Day, but with the pain fresh each time.” Anyone who has tried to take the car keys away from an elderly relative knows how hard it can be, he said, adding that, in this case, “It wasn’t just about a car. It was about the U.S. Senate.”
Some who have watched the situation unfold fault Schumer, and the Democratic establishment in California, for not having intervened before Feinstein ran for reëlection in 2018. “She should have gone out on top in 2018,” said a former Senate aide who continues to admire her, but who pointed out that many of Feinstein’s peers retired selflessly. “We only have a hundred senators. I don’t think she should be there,” the former aide said. “Someone should have told her.” But it’s unclear whether Feinstein would have listened. As one of the current aides to a different senator notes, “In her defense, Feinstein has had to fight for everything she’s gotten. She didn’t get where she is as a woman in politics by listening to the men.” Whether Feinstein will serve out the remainder of her term, which will end in 2024, when she is ninety-one, is a matter of speculation among some of those who have worked with her.
Meanwhile, the Feinstein situation has triggered the latest round in a larger generational fight in the Democratic Senate caucus. Unlike the Republican leadership in the Senate, which rotates committee chairmanships, the Democrats have stuck with the seniority system. Some frustrated younger members argue that this has undermined the Democrats’ effectiveness by giving too much power to elderly and sometimes out-of-touch chairs, resulting in uncoördinated strategy and too little opportunity for members in their prime.
A glimpse of the discontent became visible last month, when Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island, who at sixty-five is considered a younger member, challenged the claim of Richard Durbin, the seventy-six-year-old senator from Illinois, a long-serving member of the Party’s leadership, to be next in line to fill Feinstein’s seat as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Whitehouse argued that Durbin had enough powerful positions already. He proposed a rule change that would bar Durbin, as the Party’s second-ranking leader, or “whip,” from being eligible to also take the top post on the committee. Another senator proposed a less stringent rule change that would bar the whip from also holding a top position on more than one committee or subcommittee. In a secret ballot on Wednesday, this second rule passed. It will enable Durbin to be the whip and the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, but requires him to relinquish an additional seat that he has held as the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee overseeing defense spending.
This may settle the immediate strife within the Democratic caucus. But Congress’s gerontocracy problem shows no sign of abating. If Republicans hold the Senate majority next year after Georgia’s two runoff races, the likely chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee will be Chuck Grassley, of Iowa. Now eighty-seven, he is just three months younger than Feinstein. And he has said that he is considering running for reëlection in 2022.
*story by The New Yorker