Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. came to Capitol Hill Thursday and openly stated that he is neither an anti-Semite nor a racist, ardently defending free speech and accusing the Biden administration and its political opponents of trying to put to silence him.
Mr. Kennedy, an environmental lawyer who has turned to anti-vaccine activism and trafficked in conspiracy theories, was referring to the storm that erupted after the New York Post released a video in which he told private audiences that the Covid-19 « attacks some races disproportionately » and may have been « ethnically targeted » to do more harm to whites and blacks than to Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.
Mr. Kennedy, a scion of the Democratic political clan, appeared before the House Select Subcommittee on Arming the Federal Government, a group created by Republicans to conduct a wide-ranging investigation of federal law enforcement and security agencies national. He said he « had never been anti-vax » and had taken all the recommended vaccines except the coronavirus vaccine.
Thursday’s hearing was devoted to allegations by Kennedy and Republicans that the Biden administration is trying to censor people with differing opinions. He was rooted in a lawsuit filed last year by the Missouri and Louisiana attorneys general known as Missouri v. Biden, who accused the administration of colluding with social media companies to suppress free speech on Covid-19, elections and other issues.
Subcommittee chairman Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and acolyte of former President Donald J. Trump, opened the hearing by citing a email surfaced in that case, in which a White House official asked Twitter to remove a tweet in which Mr. Kennedy suggested – with no evidence – that baseball legend Hank Aaron may have died from the coronavirus vaccine.
The tweet, which has not been removed, said Mr Aaron’s death was « part of a wave of suspicious deaths among the elderly » following the vaccination. There hasn’t been such a wave of suspicious deaths. Like much of Mr. Kennedy’s writing, his language was carefully worded; he did not explicitly link the vaccine to the deaths, but rather stated that the deaths occurred « immediately following the administration of the #COVID #vaccines ».
Thursday’s session had all the makings of a Washington show. A long line had formed outside the hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building when Mr. Kennedy arrived. Kennedy supporters stood outside the building with a Kennedy 2024 banner and homemade posters. « Abolish warfare, » he read.
Despite the theater, the hearing raised thorny questions about free speech in a democratic society: Is disinformation protected by the First Amendment? When is it appropriate for the federal government to try to crack down on the spread of falsehoods?
Democrats accused Republicans of giving Kennedy a forum for bigotry and pseudoscience. « Free speech is not an absolute, » said Deputy Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands, the top Democrat on the subcommittee. “The Supreme Court said so. And the freedom of speech of others that is allowed – hateful and offensive rhetoric – does not need to be promoted in the halls of the Casa del Popolo”.
Even by Mr. Kennedy’s standards for fueling controversy, his recent comments on Covid-19 were shocking. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Florida, who is Jewish, tried unsuccessfully Thursday to force the commission into executive session; she insisted that Mr. Kennedy had violated House rules by making « despicable anti-Semitic and anti-Asian comments. » She also helped organize Democrats to sign a letter urging the Republican leadership to disinvite him from the hearing.
Mr. Kennedy waved the letter during his keynote address. « I know many of the people who wrote this letter, » he said. « I don’t think there is a single person who signed this letter who believes I am anti-Semitic. »
Mr. Kennedy has attracted supporters from the fringes of both political parties. He has made common cause with Republicans and Trump supporters who accuse the federal government of conspiring with social media companies to suppress conservative content.
Thursday’s hearing was billed as a session to « examine the federal government’s role in censoring Americans, the Missouri case against Biden, and Big Tech’s collusion with out-of-control government agencies to silence speech. » One of the attorneys involved in that case, D. John Sauer, also testified, as did Emma-Jo Morris, a reporter for Breitbart News, and Maya Wiley, president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Mr. Kennedy showed a flash of old-fashioned Kennedy, invoking his uncle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a legislative giant who often worked across the aisle. He asked for kindness and respect, recalling how his uncle brought Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican with whom he collaborated on important legislation, to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
And Mr. Kennedy was joined by a former congressman: Dennis J. Kucinich, who served in the House as an Ohio Democrat and is Mr. Kennedy’s campaign manager.
« We must elevate the Constitution of the United States, which was written for troubled times, » Kennedy declared at one point, « and that must be the primary compass for all our endeavours. »
Amid the vitriol, members of both parties rallied around a lament from Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia.
« I’ve been in this Congress for 15 years and I never thought we’d descend to this level of Orwellian dystopia, » said Connolly.
Representatives Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, and Harriet M. Hageman, Republican of Wyoming, nodded and smiled. “I agree,” they said in unison.