A July 20 House Judiciary Committee hearing examining the federal government’s role in censoring Americans Democrats was marked by explosive exchanges between Democrats and Republicans about Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s comments on vaccines and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The forum also included discussion about social media companies’ handling of the Hunter Biden laptop story and government efforts to work with social media companies to remove “disinformation” and “misinformation.”
Mr. Kennedy, who is challenging President Joe Biden for the party’s 2024 nomination, was a star witness at the hearing on the weaponization of the federal government.
Republicans defended Mr. Kennedy and charged the Democrats’ outcry over his presence at the hearing as “censorship.” Democrats criticized Republicans for giving Mr. Kennedy a “megaphone” to talk about his views on vaccines.
Robert Kennedy Jr., 2024 presidential hopeful, testifies at the “Weaponization of the Federal Government” hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 20, 2023. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Here are six key highlights from the hearing:
Attempt to ‘Censor a Censorship Hearing’
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) is the House Judiciary Committee chair, and in the lead-up to the hearing, House Democrats urged him to cancel Mr. Kennedy’s testimony.
In a secretly recorded video last week, Mr. Kennedy was heard describing how research showed COVID-19 virus disproportionately affected Caucasian and black people while being comparably mild for Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people, who Mr. Kennedy suggested had a stronger immune response to the virus. Mr. Kennedy also mentioned how bioweapons could potentially be designed to harm certain ethnic groups over others.
Democrats and other Mr. Kennedy critics condemned the comments as “racist” and “antisemitic.”
On Twitter, Mr. Kennedy said he “never, ever suggested that the COVID-19 virus was targeted to spare Jews” and called for a newspaper article on the video that he said was “false, underhanded, and inflammatory” to be retracted.
In her opening remarks, Ranking Member Delegate Stacey Plaskett (D-V.I.) accused committee Republicans of giving a platform to “hateful, evidence-free rhetoric” and “conspiracy theories.”
Ms. Plaskett said she was “appalled” that “we are creating a platform for this kind of discussion—not about free speech … but the content of some of that speech that we are amplifying in this room.”
Mr. Kennedy’s alleged endorsement of a video comparing the COVID vaccine to the Tuskegee experiments on black people “manipulates and preys” on black people’s feelings about the issue, Ms. Plaskett said.
Mr. Kennedy was indirectly promoting eugenicist and racial science ideas about black people by raising alarms about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, she suggested.
Ranking member Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-V.I.), right, debates with Chairman Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), left, during a hearing before the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government of the House Judiciary Committee at Rayburn House Office Building, Capitol Hill in Washington on May 18, 2023. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
During later questioning, Mr. Kennedy replied that Ms. Plaskett’s remarks were defamatory and “simply inaccurate.”
Ms. Plaskett interrupted as Mr. Kennedy defended himself.
“It’s the witness’s time, please don’t censor him,” Mr. Massie interjected.
Mr. Kennedy agreed with Ms. Plaskett during his opening remarks that it was an “important point” to mention that “this body ought to be concerning itself with issues that impact directly the American people: the rising price of groceries, the war in Ukraine, inflation issues, border issues, many, many other issues that affect us as a nation.
“We can’t do that without the First Amendment, without debate,” Mr. Kennedy added.
As an example, Mr. Kennedy said, YouTube removed his speech announcing his run for president.
“I didn’t talk about vaccines in that speech, I didn’t talk about anything that was a verboten subject,” he said.
“Debate—congenial, respectful debate—is the fertilizer, it’s the water, it’s the sunlight for our democracy,” Mr. Kennedy added.
Mr. Kennedy also referenced a copy of the letter signed by fellow Democrats calling for his appearance before Congress to be canceled.
“This itself is evidence of the problem this hearing was meant to address,” Mr. Kennedy said. “This is an attempt to censor a censorship hearing.”
RFK Jr.’s Time Cut to Five Minutes
After Mr. Kennedy and other witnesses were sworn in, Democrats called for the time given to Mr. Kennedy during his opening statement to be reduced from 10 minutes to five minutes.
“Is it 10 or five?” Ms. Plaskett asked Mr. Jordan as Mr. Kennedy started to speak.
“He’s gonna go a little longer,” Mr. Jordan replied.
Ms. Plaskett introduced a point of order demanding that Mr. Kennedy have his time slashed in half to follow standard procedure.
“I know that witnesses usually have five minutes; I see 10 minutes on the board. Is it going to be 10 minutes?” she asked.
“We’ll give him five minutes, but we’re pretty lax with this—” Mr. Jordan began.
“We are?” Ms. Plaskett responded. “I’ve seen you pound the gavel down on quite a number of witnesses.”
Mr. Jordan responded that the committee often allows lawmakers and former legislators to speak for a longer time.
Ms. Plaskett said, “He’s neither.”
Mr. Jordan approved the point of order and said, “We’ll give him five minutes. And if you wanna cut him off and censor him some more, you’re welcome to do it.”
“Oh, that’s not my job,” Ms. Plaskett responded. “That’s your job. Why don’t you threaten the witness so that they do not want to be a witness?”
Ms. Plaskett ultimately allowed Mr. Kennedy to go over the allotted time in his remarks.
Motion Made to Remove RFK Jr.’s Public Testimony
Discarding his prepared statement and speaking extemporaneously, Mr. Kennedy addressed charges of racism and anti-Semitism in his opening remarks.
“In my entire life, I have never uttered a phrase that was racist or anti-Semitic,” he said, citing his record of support for Israel.
“I have fought more ferociously for Israel than anybody, but I am being censored here through this target, through smears, through misinterpretations of what I’ve said, through lies, through association, which is a tactic that we thought had all been dispensed with since … the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s,” Mr. Kennedy added.
Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during hearing with the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 20, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
After Mr. Kennedy’s opening remarks, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) made a motion to move the hearing into executive session, which would have closed the hearing from public view.
“Mr. Kennedy has repeatedly made despicable antisemitic and anti-Asian remarks as recently as last week,” Ms. Wasserman-Schultz said, citing a section of House rules that she said Mr. Kennedy’s comments violated.
Under the rules, a committee can move into executive session if public airing of the testimony “would tend to defame, degrade, or incriminate any person, or otherwise would violate a law or rule of the House.”
Mr. Kennedy’s comments about COVID constituted a violation of these rules, Ms. Wasserman-Schultz said.
She read the alleged remarks made by Mr. Kennedy, who has said they were taken out of context to defame him until Mr. Jordan interjected, “Is the gentlelady making a motion or a speech?”
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) asked to shelve the motion before Ms. Wasserman-Schultz finished speaking.
In a recorded vote, all 10 Republicans present at the hearing voted to shelve Ms. Wasserman-Schultz’s motion. All eight Democrats present voted against it.
“Yes, to not censor,” Mr. Massie said when asked for his vote.
“No to allowing a witness to violate the rules and not have his testimony and degradation amplified,” Ms. Wasserman-Schultz said.
Rep. Daniel Goldman (D-N.Y.) said he was voting “No to hate speech.”
Ahead of his vote, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) asked, “Is it the custom of this committee to censor viewpoints we disagree with?”
Mr. Massie said later in the hearing that “the irony and cognitive dissonance from the other side of the aisle is deafening.
“This is a hearing on censorship that began with an effort, with a formal motion from the other side of the aisle to censor Mr. Kennedy,” he explained.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) speaks at a House Second Amendment Caucus press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on June 8, 2022. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Mr. Massie added that the testimony he heard raised concerns that certain political candidates will be prevented from communicating with the public.
“This administration, and the people who’ve been there, frankly before this administration took office, they’re just hostile to free speech. And they’ve instituted ways that they think are getting around the law, but they’re unconstitutional,” Mr. Massie said.
“Their ways of censoring speech, they lean on private companies because they know the government itself cannot do it constitutionally,” Mr. Massie told NTD after the hearing. “But I would argue that constructively, by doing those things, leaning on private institutions to censor, they are violating the Constitution. And I am worried that we’re going to have a hard time in this election cycle for everybody to get their message out.”
Subject to ‘Targeted Propaganda’
Mr. Kennedy, in his opening remarks, chastised the Democrats’ efforts to censor his speech and to deter his presidential campaign.
“Censorship is antithetical to our party,” he said. “It was appalling to my father, to my uncle, to FDR, to Harry Truman, to Thomas Jefferson, as the chairman referred to. It is the basis for democracy.”
“The First Amendment was not written for easy speech,” he added. “It was written for the speech that nobody likes you for.”
Three days into the start of Joe Biden’s presidency, emails show the Biden administration tried to censor his comments about vaccines, Mr. Kennedy said.
“They had to invent a new word called ‘malinformation’ to censor people like me,” he said.
“Malinformation is information that is true, but it is inconvenient to the government, that they don’t want people to hear.”
“My uncle Edward Kennedy has more legislation with his name on it than any senator in United States history,” he said. “Why is that? Because he was able to reach across the aisle because he didn’t deal in the insults because he didn’t try to censor people.”
Mr. Kennedy said that, since the beginning of his campaign, he has been the subject of a new kind of censorship, which he defined as “targeted propaganda,” the selective use of pejorative terms like “anti-vax,” “anti-Semitism,” and “racism” to discredit him.
These “appalling, disgusting pejoratives are applied to me to silence me because people don’t want me to have that conversation about the war, about inflation, about groceries,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Robert Kennedy Jr., 2024 Presidential hopeful, listens to Representative and Chairman Jim Jordan (on screen) before testifying at the “Weaponization of the Federal Government” hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 20, 2023. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Conspiracy Theory Charges Continue
Early in the hearing, Ms. Wasserman-Schultz requested that Mr. Kennedy’s invitation to appear be revoked “due to his repeated and very recent statements that spread dangerous and antisemitic conspiracy theories.
“His reckless rhetoric helped fuel antisemitic incidents, which—for the record—are at the highest level in the United States since 1970,” she said.
Ms. Wasserman-Schultz compared Mr. Kennedy’s comments on the relative severity of the COVID virus across racial lines to claims during the Middle Ages that Jews were responsible for diseases like the Black Death.
Mr. Kennedy responded with a clarification of his earlier remarks, citing a specific study funded by the National Institutes of Health which suggested that there are indeed different levels of severity of the virus across different racial groups.
Ms. Wasserman-Schultz cut him off and reclaimed her time.
“You’re slandering me, indirectly,” Mr. Kennedy said, demanding that he be given time to speak.
“You did not cite any study in your earlier remarks,” Ms. Wasserman-Schultz responded. “You’re trying to re-write history here.”
Mr. Massie, later in the hearing, submitted for the record two studies, including the one referenced by Mr. Kennedy. The study discovered unique genetic susceptibility to the virus across different racial populations.
Mr. Kennedy also talked about his stance on the COVID-19 vaccine and said, “At one point you say I’m anti-vax and that’s a bad thing, and the other moment you point out that all my children are vaxxed. I’m fully compliant with the vaccine schedule myself, except for COVID.”
Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during a hearing with the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 20, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Testimony Draws Campaign Donations
American Values 2024 is a super PAC “dedicated to electing Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to President of the United States,” according to a statement from the organization.
Mr. Kennedy’s testimony resulted in a substantial haul of campaign donations, the organization said.
“American Values 2024 raised over $16,250,000 since it was founded in late 2022. The key point is that $5,000,000 of that came in during Robert F Kennedy Jr’s congressional testimony,” said Tony Lyons, co-founder of American Values 2024.
“The censorship, vilification, and targeted propaganda playbook that the DNC used so effectively against Bernie Sanders won’t work against Robert F Kennedy Jr.”
Earlier in July, Mr. Kennedy reported more than $6.3 million in donations, almost all of which came from individuals. ABC News reported that, according to his most recent Federal Election Commission financial filing, Mr. Kennedy has gained more support from Republican donors than Democratic counterparts.
Of the 104 donors who gave more than $6,000 to Kennedy, which is near the legal maximum donation of $6,600 across the entire cycle, 39 percent had histories of donating to Republicans, and 30 percent had only ever donated to Republican candidates and causes.
Seven prominent Republican donors have given Mr. Kennedy’s campaign more than $100,000 to GOP candidates and causes.