Sen. Cory Booker roiled the nationally watched hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Thursday, releasing previously confidential documents in what he described as an act of "civil disobedience" — but which Republicans labeled blatant political grandstanding.
The New Jersey Democrat said he understood that by releasing the documents, which the Republican committee chair had previously ruled private, he could face the penalty of expulsion from the Senate. He seemed to relish the possibility of that fight, repeatedly stressing that he was violating Senate rules and all but begging to be made a political martyr.
"I openly invite and accept the consequences of my team releasing that email right now," Booker said at a Judiciary Committee hearing, repeating the sentiment numerous times.
No matter that the fight was already over: The GOP-led committee had already agreed to Booker's request to allow public disclosure of the documents, which concerned Kavanaugh's views on airport security and racial profiling after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when he was a lawyer in President George W. Bush's White House.
Later, Booker told Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas), the chamber's second-ranking Republican, that whatever the penalty, "apply the rule and bring the charges. Bring it."
By afternoon his staff was using the hashtag #BringIt on Twitter, and the scenes were highlighted on national cable news broadcasts.
When fellow Democrats joined Booker in protest, the senator called it his own "Spartacus moment."
The scene was the latest drama in a hearing that is unlikely to stop Kavanaugh — Republicans almost certainly have the votes to confirm him — but that has provided a national platform to Democrats considering 2020 presidential runs to show they are fighting hard against President Trump.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) had a viral moment Wednesday night with her sharp questioning of Kavanaugh, Trump's second nominee to the high court. She, like Booker, is considered a potential presidential contender.
As Booker captured the headlines Thursday morning, prominent voices on the left hailed him.
Though shadowed by politics, the debate raised what Democrats say is a critical point as they review Kavanaugh's nomination for a lifetime Supreme Court appointment. They have long complained that Republicans are rushing the hearings and hiding reams of relevant material.
With such a vital nomination at stake, Booker argues that Democrats have to push back hard.
"Running for president is no excuse for violating the rules of the Senate or of the confidentiality of the documents we are privy to," Cornyn said at the hearing. He called Booker's conduct "unbecoming a senator."
But by the time he released the selected emails Thursday morning, the GOP leaders of the Judiciary Committee had already agreed to make them public — fueling Republican criticism that Booker was more interested in headlines than documents.
During one Booker monologue, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) interjected: "Can I ask how long you're going to say the same thing three or four times?"
The emails Booker released — from Kavanaugh's tenure as a lawyer in the White House Counsel's Office in the early 2000s — involved racial profiling and airport security in the months after the terrorist attacks.
"I sincerely believe the public deserves to know this nominee's record … on race and the law," Booker said Thursday morning.
Democrats came to Booker's defense, arguing that they had not consented to the GOP process for sealing some records and that many kept private did not warrant classification.
Booker later disputed that he had violated Senate rules, but acknowledged he did "willingly violate" Grassley's ruling to make some 140,000 documents available to committee members only. Booker said he "could not understand why these issues should be withheld from the public."
Later, he acknowledged that the documents had been cleared for release by the time he shared them Thursday by tweeting links to the files. But he insisted he had still broken Senate rules by reading from the documents Wednesday night as he questioned Kavanaugh, before they were cleared.
Booker said he had "shamed" Republicans into sharing them.
"When I violated the rule, I violated them yesterday," he told reporters, repeating the point several times.
A Bush lawyer who has helped review documents for the hearings told the Washington Post that he had approved public release of the documents before Thursday's session began. "We were surprised to learn about Sen. Booker's histrionics this morning because we had already told him he could use the documents publicly," lawyer William Burck told the Post.
As the day wore on, Booker continued releasing more of Kavanaugh's emails, including at least some that had not been cleared by the committee for public dissemination.
In January 2002, Kavanaugh and other Bush White House lawyers debated the use of racial profiling in airport security. Kavanaugh wrote that he generally favored "race-neutral" security measures but that the White House needed to grapple with "the interim question of what to do before a truly effective and comprehensive race-neutral system is developed and implemented."
That interim question, he wrote, was "of critical importance to the security of the airlines and American people in the next 6 months or so especially given al-Qaeda's track record of timing between terrorist incidents."
Booker said that he had asked Kavanaugh during proceedings Wednesday night for his views on the subject, but that the nominee had demurred.
A spokesperson for Grassley told reporters Thursday that the chairman's staff had worked "throughout the night" Wednesday to facilitate requests from Booker and other senators to use "certain legally restricted documents" in the public hearing.
Grassley agreed to allow those documents to be made public, including the ones Booker released earlier Thursday, following reviews from Bush and Trump representatives, spokesperson Taylor Foy said.
"None of these senators took up Chairman Grassley on his offer from weeks ago to seek waivers on such material ahead of the hearing," Foy said. "Of course, doing so would have undermined their talking point that Republicans have something to hide. Obviously, that's not the case."