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

Granted, Trump’s nominees are likely to be confirmed.

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

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.

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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.