Kamala Harris Preps Her Pivot

As President Trump lashes out at legal attacks, the senator from California sees an opportunity to remind voters that she was once a respected lawyer.

California Senator Kamala Harris speaks to a crowd with her arm raised at Polk County Democrats’ Steak Fry in Des Moines, Iowa in September.
Senator Kamala Harris at the Polk County Democrats’ Steak Fry in Des Moines, Iowa, in September (Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters)

Kamala Harris made her first trip to Iowa with the national press in tow one year ago this month. The senator from California was fresh off another star performance cross-examining the then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. I watched as women literally collapsed in her arms, crying with gratitude about how she had stood up for them. Harris had a pitch she was working out on the trail that her advisers felt was perfect for the moment: the prosecutor for president, a way to make her biography seem tailor-made for taking on Donald Trump in 2020. She was widely seen as a front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

One year later, Trump is likely to be impeached in the House, sending him to trial in the Senate. Harris is in the minority in the Senate, stuck on the sidelines for this process, and she must assert that she is a “top-tier candidate” to skeptics who look at her single-digit poll numbers and middle-of-the-road fundraising and see a campaign that seems to be sputtering.

Instead of a prosecutor for president, Harris is now a prospective juror of a president, one of 100 senators who will potentially hear the case from the House members who will serve as impeachment managers. But Harris and her aides are determined to lean into her being the on-air legal analyst, especially as most of the rest of the field steers clear, apparently unsure of how the story will turn or a way to wiggle into it. Harris’s team is looking to have her on TV constantly in the coming weeks. She’s already called for Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to be disbarred, and has called for Twitter to suspend the president’s account, the latter of which has created massive engagement online and managed, amid everything else, to draw a response from the White House. (They’re calling her “authoritarian.”) Now the media requests are coming, and with them, some new online fundraising.

Harris told me she sees the case clearly.

“We’ve got a confession. We have a cover-up—which suggests, to me, consciousness of guilt,” Harris said. “It won’t take a lot of time to present the evidence. And I think that there’s a lot of evidence that is going to lead people to probably a quick decision.”

Punditry is an odd spot for Harris, whose breakout moments have come in committee hearings—like the run-in with Attorney General William Barr during his confirmation hearing in May when she asked, “Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?” Barr started stammering, and wondered out loud, “The president or anybody else …” as Harris pressed him for a yes or no. “I’m trying to grapple with the word suggest,” Barr told her.

Add that response to the evidence file, Harris said, now that the summary of the call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky includes Trump trying to connect Kiev officials with Barr, who was reportedly busy flying around the world, allegedly trying to enlist foreign intelligence officials’ help in undermining the findings of American intelligence officials and Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

“I would really want to believe in my heart that when the attorney general of the United States testified before the United States Congress that he did not lie,” she said. “That being said, it was a really direct question I asked, and he was so obviously evasive. He is obviously a very smart person. He is well educated. And so I am suspicious that he was trying to evade. Obviously, he was not being direct. And one has to ask why. ”

Two weeks ago, on a conference call with reporters to spin the coming pivot toward emphasizing Iowa, Harris’s campaign manager, Juan Rodriguez, and her communications director, Lily Adams, were asked an elemental question: Is there a policy issue that she’s running on?

“Voters really are looking for someone who can unite the country, and unite the party—that’s broader than any sort of policy issue,” Adams said. But if there is an issue, Adams said, it would be gun violence, and the campaign was seeing people respond to Harris’s plan to use executive actions to restrict purchases if Congress wouldn’t pass a bill.

Now, with the president facing constitutional prosecution, Harris told me she’s ready to “help people interpret and analyze what’s happening,” but she’s going to keep campaigning on guns, health care, and people being able to pay their bills. She went right back to the lines she’d started sketching out a year ago in Iowa, regarding what people think about in the middle of the night. She has tried to define herself as someone with pragmatic solutions while her rivals in the race tack a direction she sees as overly broad or unrealistic. This is not unlike the way Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign responded to Hillary Clinton’s promise of change by declaring that he was about “change we can believe in.”

“My experience when I’m out there and I’m doing my town halls and rallies, people rarely raise their hand and say, ‘What wakes me up in the middle of the night is Barr’s testimony,’” Harris said. “But it does come up, and people are really concerned, and they’ve become distrustful of our government—and that has a lot to do with it, which is also what is contributing to the disharmony and the divisions.”

A sense of injustice appears to still pull at Harris. Near the end of our conversation, she told me a story about the summer of 1984, between her sophomore and junior years at Howard University, when she was interning for Alan Cranston, who was then the senior senator from California. Harris said that as she’d walk into the Hart Senate Office Building, she would pass the Supreme Court and look up at the words Equal Justice Under Law carved in the front. “I know this sounds corny, but it’s just true,” she said.

“How can you talk about having a criminal-justice system that is engaged in mass incarceration, that is locking up people for lifetime sentences on less evidence than this?” she said. “And then know there is that part of it—it is about what this is doing to further taint or create skepticism or distrust in our system of justice, if the laws apply to some but not all. And people are every day in America walking into courthouses—every day—and what are they thinking about when they walk into that courthouse? What will the law mean for them, versus Donald Trump?”

In the meantime, the president is insisting he’s the target of a coup while trying to out a whistle-blower’s identity. He’s accusing Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, of treason—all while members of his administration and his personal lawyer have begun refusing to comply with subpoenas.

Harris often talks about how her whole life has been devoted to the rule of law. Does she feel like the rule of law has come apart?

“Not yet. But there has certainly been, I think, an intentional attempt to weaken the rule of law and to bypass the rule of law,” she said. “If you think of our democracy as being a house, we’re enduring, existing through a natural disaster, and some of the shingles have fallen, but the house is still standing.”