Tuesday, May 21, 2024
    HomePoliticsRobert F. Kennedy Jr. Insists He Is Not Antisemitic During House Hearing

    Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Insists He Is Not Antisemitic During House Hearing

    The Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. came to Capitol Hill on Thursday and pointedly declared that he is neither an antisemite nor a racist, while giving a fiery defense of free speech and accusing the Biden administration and his political opponents of trying to silence him.

    Mr. Kennedy, an environmental lawyer who turned to anti-vaccine activism and has trafficked in conspiracy theories, was referring to the storm that erupted after The New York Post published a video in which he told a private audience that Covid-19 “attacks certain races disproportionately” and may have been “ethnically targeted” to do more harm to white and Black people than to Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people.

    Mr. Kennedy, a scion of the Democratic political clan, appeared before the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government — a panel created by Republicans to conduct a wide-ranging investigation of federal law enforcement and national security agencies. He said he had “never been anti-vax” and had taken all recommended vaccines except the coronavirus vaccine.

    Thursday’s hearing was devoted to allegations by Mr. Kennedy and Republicans that the Biden administration is trying to censor people with differing views. It was rooted in a lawsuit, filed last year by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana and known as Missouri v. Biden, that accused the administration of colluding with social media companies to suppress free speech on Covid-19, elections and other matters.

    The subcommittee’s chairman, Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio and an acolyte of former President Donald J. Trump, opened the hearing by citing an email that emerged in that case, in which a White House official asked Twitter to take down a tweet in which Mr. Kennedy suggested — without evidence — that the baseball legend Hank Aaron may have died from the coronavirus vaccine.

    The tweet, which was not taken down, said Mr. Aaron’s death was “part of a wave of suspicious deaths among elderly” following vaccination. There was no such wave of suspicious deaths. Like much of Mr. Kennedy’s writings, his language was carefully phrased; he did not explicitly link the vaccine to the deaths, but rather said the deaths occurred “closely following administration of #COVID #vaccines.”

    Thursday’s session had all the makings of a Washington spectacle. A long line had formed outside the hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building by the time Mr. Kennedy arrived. Kennedy supporters stood outside the building holding a Kennedy 2024 banner and homemade posters. “Abolish War,” one read.

    Despite the theater, the hearing raised thorny questions about free speech in a democratic society: Is misinformation protected by the First Amendment? When is it appropriate for the federal government to seek to tamp down the spread of falsehoods?

    Democrats accused Republicans of giving Mr. Kennedy a forum for bigotry and pseudoscience. “Free speech is not an absolute,” said Delegate Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands, the top Democrat on the subcommittee. “The Supreme Court has stated that. And others’ free speech that is allowed — hateful, abusive rhetoric — does not need to be promoted in the halls of the People’s House.”

    Even by Mr. Kennedy’s standards for stoking controversy, his recent comments about Covid-19 were shocking. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida, who is Jewish, tried unsuccessfully on Thursday to force the panel into executive session; she insisted that Mr. Kennedy had violated House rules by making “despicable antisemitic and anti-Asian comments.” She also helped organize Democrats to sign a letter calling on the Republican leadership to disinvite him from the hearing.

    Mr. Kennedy waved the letter about during his opening remarks. “I know many of the people who wrote this letter,” he said. “I don’t believe there’s a single person who signed this letter who believes I’m antisemitic.”

    Mr. Kennedy has drawn 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 v. Biden case and Big Tech’s collusion with out-of-control government agencies to silence speech.” One of the lawyers involved in that case, D. John Sauer, also testified, as did Emma-Jo Morris, a journalist at Breitbart News, and Maya Wiley, the president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

    Mr. Kennedy showed a flash of the old Kennedy style, invoking his uncle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a legislative giant who frequently worked across the aisle. He called for kindness and respect, recalling how his uncle brought Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican with whom he partnered on major legislation, to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass.

    And Mr. Kennedy was joined by a former member of Congress: Dennis J. Kucinich, who served in the House as a Democrat from Ohio and is Mr. Kennedy’s campaign manager.

    “We need to elevate the Constitution of the United States, which was written for hard times,” Mr. Kennedy declared at one point, “and that has to be the premier compass for all of our activities.”

    Amid the vitriol, members of both parties did come together around a lament from Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia.

    “I’ve been in this Congress 15 years, and I never thought we’d descend to this level of Orwellian dystopia,” Mr. Connolly said.

    Representatives Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, and Harriet M. Hageman, Republican of Wyoming, nodded their heads and smiled. “I agree with that,” they said in unison.



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