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In confirmation hearings, Franken’s sharp questions provide a morale boost to beleaguered Democrats

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken listening to Betsy DeVos during her confirmation hearing on Jan. 17.

Though he may not be the Minnesota U.S. senator with a law degree and a background as a prosecutor, Al Franken ended up being the Democrats’ chief inquisitor of Donald Trump’s Cabinet selections.

Owing to his committee assignments, Franken participated in a number of high-profile confirmation hearings, among them the grilling of Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Rep. Tom Price, and Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos.

The Democratic base, despairing after Trump’s election, craved some clean blows on Trump’s appointees, and Franken’s frequently deadpan, combative approach delivered, creating viral moments that traveled far and wide on social media.

As cathartic as Franken “destroying” and “eviscerating” so-and-so cabinet nominee may have been for some, the questions of Minnesota’s junior senator also generated real news that influenced the public debate on Trump’s appointees.

Here’s a look back at Franken’s more memorable moments from the hearing marathon.

Jeff Sessions (Attorney General)

The Senate’s first confirmation hearing, of Sessions before the Judiciary Committee, was the chamber’s lengthiest, and probably its most intense.

Senate Democrats asked the Alabama Republican and ardent Trump-backer a variety of questions, on topics ranging from voting rights to the administration of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Franken used his first round of questioning as a lengthy drilling of Sessions on one topic: his record on civil rights as a lawyer.

Weeks later, things got testy when the Judiciary Committee finally voted on Sessions. Franken delivered a fiery speech, defending himself after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz accused him of trying to discredit and impugn Sessions, a fellow senator. Franken then went into re-articulating his case that the GOP falsely branded Sessions as a civil rights champion.

Right after Franken’s speech, Judiciary Committee approved Sessions’ nomination, along party lines.

Betsy DeVos (Education)

Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, faced intense questioning from Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

DeVos, who married into a Michigan clan of billionaire conservatives, has no experience teaching and has never held public office. Mainly an activist philanthropist, DeVos has supported and bankrolled charter school experiments nationwide, and Democrats see her as a foe of public education.

During her hearing, DeVos struggled to articulate fundamental education concepts — something Franken exposed in this exchange:

Observers said this was a softball from Franken. Whether Franken meant to trip up DeVos or not, her flub here became exhibit A of Democrats’ case that she is unqualified for the job.

That sentiment has made her confirmation a focal point of Democratic resistance, and she has garnered uniform opposition from Democratic senators — and from a few Republicans, too.

After some procedural wrangling, DeVos’ nomination will come to the Senate floor on Tuesday, and her confirmation might require a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence.

Tom Price (Health and Human Services)

The confirmation hearing of Rep. Tom Price, a Georgia Republican and a physician, became the Trump era’s first big, public fight between friends and foes of the Affordable Care Act.

Price is Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency with the widest jurisdiction over Obamacare. In the House, Price was considered a thought leader of the conservative opposition to the health care law. If confirmed, he will play a vital role in the GOP’s efforts to get rid of the sweeping health care law and replace it with something else.

Because of those high stakes, Price was subjected to relentless questioning from Democrats, who zeroed in on news reports that as a congressman, Price bought stock in firms before supporting legislation that would have directly benefited those firms.

Franken questioned Price over his stock holdings, including, his ownership of stock in tobacco companies, as well as a company called Innate Immunotherapeutics, whose value grew immensely after Price bought it:

Democrats on the HELP Committee boycotted Price’s confirmation vote, denying the quorum needed under Senate procedure, but GOP leaders changed the rules last week to advance Price to the Senate floor for a full confirmation vote.

Rick Perry (Energy)

To head up the Department of Energy, which, among other things, manages the country’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, Trump selected former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who once very publicly expressed his desire to eliminate the Department of Energy.

When Perry appeared before the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Franken questioned him about climate change, a phenomenon the two-time presidential candidate once denied:

What got the most attention from their exchange, though, wasn’t any exchange over policy. Franken and Perry shared an interesting moment when the senator’s questioning began:

Perry was approved by the Energy Committee, and will receive a vote in the full Senate. Franken did not vote for him.

Correction: This article incorrectly characterized Rick Perry’s support in the Energy Committee. He received some Democratic votes.

Comments (34)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Cahill on 02/07/2017 - 12:48 pm.

    An ‘A’ for effort, but with what result ?

    A much deserved ‘thank you’ to Senator Franken for trying to inject a bit of reality into the Senate’s hearings. But I have to observe that every one of these horrible nominees will be approved and go on to do who knows how much damage. Clearly the old morays of principled discussion, ethics and facts are no longer relevant. While many of Senator Franken’s exchanges make for great news clips and may be morale boosters for some, I feel that they also highlight the powerlessness of any voice of reason or sanity in Trumplandia. My conclusion is that the Senator and his colleagues would achieve more by saving their passion and energy for a fight that they have some hope of winning.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 02/07/2017 - 01:00 pm.

    Not impressed….but embarassed

    “Apparently the Senator does not get the message…this is over the top and inappropriate.”

    If a member of the GOP would have exhibited such behavior toward a democrat – they would have been considered a “bully.”

    Mr. Franken reminds us repeatedly that he is not a lawyer – -nothing could be more obvious.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/07/2017 - 04:40 pm.

      Blush Away

      If a Democratic President had nominated such obviously unfit (Senator Sessions) or incompetent (Ms. DeVos) people for cabinet positions, “over the top and inappropriate” would have been the mildest adjectives used..

      “Mr. Franken reminds us repeatedly that he is not a lawyer – -nothing could be more obvious.” He is also obviously not a ballerina–what’s your point?

    • Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/07/2017 - 05:37 pm.

      Rubber stamps don’t come with the job

      Every question Franken ask and weakness he exposed was legitimate. Attorney Generals are supposed to be fair, Secretarys of Education advocates of public education, Health sSectetaries promote health and health care over corporate and investor profit and Energy Secretaries supportive of scientific opinion regarding the risks of heavy energy use.

      Franken revealed how none of these candidates are well qualified for their jobs and set up expectations they can be held to. Either they do a good job or fall short, and if they fall short this will immediately be evident by their actions.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/07/2017 - 01:18 pm.

    Thanks Sam

    Good article with support. Always amazed at the right wingers when they claim foul! Seems they would be happy when some of the left leaning adopt a very light and honest form of their take no prisoners approach! All the senator did was show the candidates for what they were, or were not, qualified and probably less than ethical. They did however pass the”R” test, all that is required, have an “R” behind your name, nothing could be more obvious.

    • Submitted by Barbara Skoglund on 02/07/2017 - 04:15 pm.

      More than an R

      They also need to make campaign contributions, be committed to destroy the agency they were chosen to “lead” and have zero compassion, understanding, or ethics.

  4. Submitted by John Edwards on 02/07/2017 - 01:50 pm.

    What non-liberals thought

    I am sure angst-riddled liberals think Al Franken is performing well in the confirmation hearings. Few others do. Paul Mirengoff of the Powerline website (its research ended liberal anchor Dan Rather’s career) Jan. 10 disassembled the former comic’s questioning of Jeff Sessions:

    ” . . . Since Sessions corrected any false impression his original answer might have caused, Franken’s line of questioning was piddling. Next Franken tried to show that Sessions had “misrepresented” his role by listing several big civil rights cases as among the most important cases he participated in. Franken’s point was that, although Sessions signed the complaint, he hadn’t really participated. Franken relied mostly on Gerry Hebert, lead counsel in most of these cases, who has been saying that Sessions basically had no role. Hebert has a history of dishonesty, as Christian Adams has reported. (

    “But Sessions had an even better way of dealing with Hebert’s attack. He quoted at length from gushing testimony Hebert gave in 1986 stating that Sessions played a major role in the civil rights prosecutions that Hebert pursued. As Sessions read this testimony, Franken tried to talk over him. He failed. Using Hebert’s own words, Sessions destroyed him, and Franken, on this point.
    In the end, Franken was reduced to saying that, though he is not a lawyer (we can tell), it seems to him that by saying he had “filed” a case, Sessions implied that he “led” the case. Um, no.”

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/07/2017 - 02:10 pm.


      And Mr. Mirengoff doesn’t have a big red “R” on his chest? Definitely a source of fair and unbiased thought!

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/07/2017 - 04:36 pm.


      There was no way on earth Powerline was going to do anything but pretend that Senator Franken’s performance was inadequate. Even your brief excerpt (and “brief excerpt” is about as deep as those boys go) is nothing more than conclusions, based in part on readings from pjmedia, a rank peddler of untruths.

  5. Submitted by Frank Bowden on 02/07/2017 - 02:09 pm.

    Minnesotans should be proud to have Sen. Franken represent them

    It is encouraging in these dark times to witness a Senator who treats his job with appropriate gravity and seriousness.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/07/2017 - 03:31 pm.


    Mr. Franken made a living for many years recognizing and pointing out the absurd. He has changed venues from SNL to the U.S. Senate, but the absurdities remain, and I’m happy to see him still pointing them out. Over the course of the next 4 years, I’m going to guess that he’ll have many more opportunities to do so.

  7. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 02/07/2017 - 05:04 pm.

    Our Senator Franken did manage to point out HOW two of his colleagues (Sessions and Cruz) distorted the truth in their presentations to the Judiciary Committee. That’s very important, and it takes time to dig through HOW they did that. He put significant items on the official record in Sessions’ confirmation hearings. That’s important.

    Franken knows that the democrats have no opportunity in a GOP-run Senate to turn back nomination. All they can hope to do is inform the public of what they have found out about the nominees before the party-line vote that will shoe them in.

    De Vos should not have been confirmed. I couldn’t believe the blankness and vapidity, the ignorance of educational issues, that she showed. Shame on the Republicans who put her in charge of our educational decision-making at the federal level!

    Thanks for all these video clips, too! I’m not a steady TV viewer and would have missed how well Franken is doing for us–all those of us who are not attorneys and who have the audacity to think that “I personally handled [these cases]” means that Sessions litigated them, hands-on! Who think that an anti-civil rights guy can’t fake his record and pretend that he strongly supports integration and civil rights, including voting rights. Stand up to Trump? Surely no one would believe Sessions will.

  8. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/07/2017 - 08:36 pm.

    Once upon a time

    When Senator Franken was first elected, he noted the thin margin of victory and said that he would work hard to represent ALL Minnesotans. Can’t say that I’ve ever noted a question posed that would have been on the minds of the other half of Minnesotans that he claims to represent.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/08/2017 - 09:03 am.


      Does “representation” mean just repeating talking points? “For the rest of my allotted time, I will ask questions that the Republicans in Minnesota would like me to ask.”

      Perhaps “representation” in this context means asking hard questions of cabinet nominees. It means making an informed judgment about their qualifications, or their appalling lack thereof. It means putting a little effort into advising and consenting.

      Frankly, it strikes me as more than a little insulting to assume that Republicans would not want a thorough consideration of nominees, or that they would want their Senator to be a rubber stamp for presidential appointments.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/09/2017 - 07:03 pm.


        The Senator could ask hard questions from a conservative point of view (even though the Senator has no intention of voting for the candidate). The Senator could vote for a candidate even though he might not agree with everything about the candidate, but believes that the candidate is qualified for the position, rather than being a rubber stamp NO! to every presidential appointment. The Senator could consent, even if just once.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/10/2017 - 09:07 am.

          Words Fail Me

          “The Senator could ask hard questions from a conservative point of view (even though the Senator has no intention of voting for the candidate).” So members of Congress have to strive for “balance” now?

          The fact of the Trump presidency has set the bar for absurdity pretty high, but I think this suggestion clears it. Members of Congress have no legal or moral obligation to give voice to all points of view (does Rep. Lewis?).

          • Submitted by Steve Rose on 02/11/2017 - 11:35 am.


            I agree that it is not one party’s job to promote the other’s agenda.

            For the past eight years, conservatives have listened to liberals decry the performance of Republican legislators, charging that they are not doing their jobs, that they are the “Party of No”, that they are obstructionists. No Republican voted for the so-called Affordable Care Act”, which President Obama promised would reduce the cost of insurance $2500 for the average family every year. Well, many didn’t keep their plans nor their doctors, and families now pay an average of $3500 more for healthcare. That is a $6000 difference for every family. Now, liberals get to listen to complaints from conservatives about how Democrats are obstructing the President’s agenda. That table has been set for eight years and now it is time for the banquet to be served.

  9. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 02/08/2017 - 06:53 am.

    Yes it is time to applaud…

    to feel “proud” again for this state, Senator Franken’s voice ever questioning and praise too for all our representatives in government that have given us hope by speaking out…as hope at times has been reduced to a mere fine thread… but check again, growing daily as more voices rise up in dissent of the Trump debacle?

    No we cannot, we will not, we are are not stuck with the Trump gang speaking trash politics with his nodding metronome, Pence on the sidelines?

    Hope rises again…and somewhere Wellstone is applauding, yes…

  10. Submitted by mark wallek on 02/08/2017 - 10:54 am.

    not near enough

    Unfortunately, a morale boost may be dandy for our so-called representatives, but we citizens need the sort of concrete action that yields tangible results in improving the quality of life here. Al has looked very senatorial, but nothing consequential has changed on his watch. The nation continues to fail, and everybody is concerned about looking good.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/08/2017 - 12:02 pm.

    Good on Franken but…

    What we’re actually seeing here is that republicans are simply refusing to be the adults in the room. In the end THAT is a bigger problem than Trump. A bad president can be a bad president, but if Congress refuses to step up they transform a bad president into a bad regime. What we’re actually seeing here is a bucket list of republican initiatives, not just bad presidential judgement.

  12. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 02/09/2017 - 11:15 am.

    We can only wish that it was Al Franken’s watch!

    It’s been the Republican party’s watch, since the interim elections of 2010. Republican “leaders” decide the agenda, they decide not to collaborate on legislation with either a Democratic President (Obama) or Democratic members of the House or Senate. The GoP is the majority party these days and is therefore the responsible party when nothing good gets done. Or when even nothing gets done, for good or evil. Think back to the Scalia absence on the Supreme Court: the GOP insisted we wait for more than a year to have a full court, and wouldn’t even talk to Obama’s nominee.

    So you can’t blame either Minnesota Democratic senator for the repeated failures of the Republican Party electeds in Congress to know how to govern in ways that benefit the average citizen.

    Franken–and Elizabeth Warren, who was silenced yesterday by GOP Senate Majority leader McConnell as she tried to read a 1986 letter on cabinet nominee Jeff Sessions from Coretta Scott King–is trying to let the American public know what lurks beneath the veneer of lah-dee-dah Senate hearings on Trump’s cabinet. Many of Trump’s nominees are ringers! So Democrats like Franken and Warren “persist” in speaking out.

    That’s just about all a minority party can do. So, all you Trumpites: Please try to get your story making sense.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 02/09/2017 - 11:32 pm.

      Classic Race Card

      “Dr. Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said during an appearance on FOX Business that Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren was playing the “race card” on Tuesday.

      During a debate over Jeff Sessions’ nomination for attorney general, Warren was prevented from speaking further after she started reading a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King who wanted to block Sessions from a federal judgeship. Warren was accused of “impugning Sessions” which is against Senate rules, notes CNN.

      King told Fox Business that Coretta would have a different view of Sessions now, noting, “…she would agree today that he of course ended some school segregation and he worked to prosecute members of the KKK…(she) would have noted that he had done some great work in fighting against discrimination.””

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/10/2017 - 11:18 am.

        Alveda King is not the most credible source on what any member of the King family would think if they were alive today. For example, she has claimed that Dr. Martin Luther King was “pro-life,” even though Planned Parenthood gave him their Margaret Sanger award.

        It is worth noting that Coretta Scott King did not endorse (Hon.) Dr. Alveda King when she ran for Congress.

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 02/11/2017 - 07:17 pm.

          So Much More

          Planned Parenthood claims to be about so much more than abortion. Is that not true? Is the Margaret Sanger Award a Litmus test for support of abortion? Perhaps today, but in 1966? A ten year timeline puts this in perspective.

          1963: Planned Parenthood publishes and distributes a pamphlet stating a position on abortion. “An abortion kills the life of the baby after it has begun.” That is definitely not something PP would put in print today,

          1964: An 83-day filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was lead by Senators Albert Gore, Sr. (D-TN), J. William Fulbright (D-AR), and Robert Byrd (D-WV).

          1966: Dr. Martin Luther King receives the Margaret Sanger Award-Humanitarian. He does not attend the award ceremony.

          1970: New York legalizes abortion and PP starts providing abortions there.

          1973: Roe v. Wade.

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 02/12/2017 - 05:27 pm.

          Back in the Day …

          Back in the day, Planned Parenthood sounded pro-life in a pamphlet they published and distributed in 1963, “An abortion kills the life of the baby after it has begun.” That is definitely not something PP would put in print today. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Sanger Award in 1966; PP began offering abortions in the 1970s; Dr. King was assassinated in April 1968. This is hardly a compelling argument that Dr. King was pro-abortion.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/13/2017 - 09:22 am.

            How About That!

            It does not go to the point that Alveda King is probably not the best source for what either Coretta King or her husband would think about anything now.

            The people closest to the late Mrs. King don’t seem too bothered by Senator Warren’s attempt to read her letter:

            “Rev Dr Barbara Reynolds, a close friend of Coretta Scott King who co-authored her memoir, My Life, My Love, My Legacy, said she was “appalled and upset” by what had happened. It was all the more disturbing, Reynolds said, given King’s specific and personal criticism of Sessions in the letter.”


      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/12/2017 - 09:07 pm.


        Nominating almost all white guy(s) for the Supreme court and the cabinet, is playing the Sex and race cards?

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 02/13/2017 - 08:55 am.

          The Best Available Person for the Job

          Nominating the best available person for the job regardless of gender or race, though it sounds provincial or old-school, is a tried and true strategy. Oh, and it is fair.

          Women hit a milestone, which they have yet to celebrate. For the first time, a woman ran a successful presidential campaign.

          • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/14/2017 - 08:12 pm.


            As we all know ” the best available person” is in the eyes of the beholder (and the beholder can have all types of prejudices) and twisted ways to express those, with out wink-wink looking prejudice, as many of us beholders believe we saw in the last election.

            • Submitted by Steve Rose on 02/15/2017 - 05:26 pm.

              We have elections and we choose beholders, and those beholders appoint people to positions. None of us like all the choices, but we have a system that works for doing it. If you have a proposal for removing judgement from this process, by all means bring it.

  13. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/09/2017 - 07:09 pm.

    Fact check

    “Think back to the Scalia absence on the Supreme Court: the GOP insisted we wait for more than a year to have a full court,”

    Justice Scalia died less than a year ago.

    It was distressing to see the Senate Majority leader put a stop to the reading of a letter from over 30 years ago (the relevance of which was what?) but pleasing to see that others were allowed to read from the letter thus keeping free speech alive while insisting on the decorum that the Senate has tried to maintain through the years.

  14. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 02/10/2017 - 12:40 pm.

    We won’t have a replacement for Scalia in more than a year after his death created an absence on the Supreme Court. We’ve had an unnecessary pile of 4-4 ties in that year’s time. We can count the months.

    One of the neatest ironies would be an expedited appeal to the Supreme Court as presently constituted of the botched Trump Executive Order banning immigration from Muslim countries where Trump hasn’t got businesses. As things stand (and due to GOP Senate refusal even to talk with Obama/s nominee from last February), the Supreme Court could by a 4-4 tie let stand the Ninth Circuit’s ruling from yesterday saying that, yes, our Constitution requires even potential dictators to have their decrees reviewed by our courts when challenged!

    Of course, we could insist that nobody question or investigate the Trump nominee to SCOTUS (that’s what Republicans seem to be insisting these days, complaining about Judiciary Committee’s Al Franken’s questions and Sen. Warren’s delineating Jeff Sessions’ failings on civil rights and voting rights, etc.) We could quickly put an unvetted nominee onto the Court, which might be as successful as Kellyanne Conway’s attempt to revive Ivanka Trumps failing fashion line yesterday with a shout-out ad–clear and egregious ethics lapse!

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