WASHINGTON — A House subcommittee hearing on social media censorship went off the rails Thursday after Rep. Linda Sanchez — who flipped off her Republican colleagues at an intramural baseball game last year — read the definition of “salacious” into the record after accusing a GOP colleague of misusing the word.
Sanchez (D-Calif.) twice interrupted the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government hearing meant to investigate authorities pressuring platforms to censor online speech in order to give a vocabulary lecture to Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.).
Sanchez first intervened during a heated argument as Democrats objected to two witnesses, Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.) and Louisiana GOP Attorney General Jeff Landry, leaving without cross-examination after both men read statements on pending litigation that unearthed details of what they called unconstitutional federal censorship pressure on social media.
The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), said it was House custom not to cross-examine current or former members of Congress who are witnesses. Landry is a former House member.
“Isn’t it true that in recent days, even colleagues like [Maryland Democratic Rep.] Jamie Raskin presented testimony that were pretty salacious and was allowed to leave the room and we were not allowed to cross-examine him?” Johnson asked.
Sanchez piped up, “Salacious has to do with sexual content and I don’t think that our colleague Mr. Raskin presented salacious comment. I would ask that that word be taken down because it’s false and inflammatory.”
Johnson quickly agreed, “Let’s call it outrageous then.”
In fact, Raskin’s testimony to the same panel last month indeed included sexual content, including an assertion as fact that former President Donald Trump had “sexual affairs” with “porn star Stormy Daniels” and former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal before he paid them “hush money.” (Trump recently denied an affair with Daniels and said she blackmailed him before the 2020 election. A Manhattan grand jury is investigating whether Trump broke any laws.)
Later in the hearing, Sanchez returned to the matter to give another scolding to Johnson.
“I have a unanimous consent request to enter into the record the Merriam-Webster [dictionary]’s definition of salacious, which says, ‘Arousing or appealing to sexual desire or imagination, lecherous or lustful,’ so that my colleague from Louisiana will not misuse that when describing the testimony of our colleagues here in Congress,” she said.
The partisan shouting match came as Republicans and Democrats accused one another of trying to “weaponize” the government — amid testimony on how federal officials leaned on social media firms to suppress alleged misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic and other matters.
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) at one point likened an IRS revenue officer’s recent visit to the home of journalist Matt Taibbi — on the same day as he testified to the panel about authorities leaning on Twitter to censor speech — to the conduct of East Germany’s Stasi secret police, which he said sought out “conspicuous visits to homes and workplaces so that citizens would be aware of and intimidated by their presence and power.”
Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer, a witness who did take questions, described his deposition of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime top US infectious disease expert who retired in December after also serving as President Biden’s former chief medical adviser.
“[Fauci] said, ‘I do not recall’ or variations thereof 174 times and adding in variations of ‘I don’t remember’ at least 212 times… he couldn’t remember things include things that he had told the national media ‘I remember very well,’” Sauer said.
“I’ve taken dozens of depositions. I’ve never seen anything like it, including in this case where federal government witnesses frequently profess inability to recall.”
Jordan followed up: “the smartest man on the planet, he set a record? Highest you’ve ever seen in ‘couldn’t recall,’ ‘didn’t remember’?”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Sauer repeated.
Jordan summarized key findings from the litigation, including the fact that at least 84 federal officials gave “suggestions” on content moderation to Twitter while at least 45 engaged with Facebook.
The chairman asked Sauer to confirm that “20 White House officials were involved in these suggestions to to these social media platforms.”
“That’s conservative, it’s probably higher,” Sauer said.
“FBI agent Elvis Chan testified the FBI alone sends encrypted lists to social media accounts, sometimes containing hundreds of accounts and URLs in each list, to platforms for censorship one to five times per month,” Jordan added.
“Over the course of years that’s been occurring,” Sauer replied.
Sauer said that Biden’s July 2021 claim that Facebook was “killing people” by allowing COVID-19 vaccine misinformation was a “watershed” moment in social media censorship. Although Biden walked back his remark, Facebook was eager to patch up relations, he said.
“What you see is these amazing emails right after that July 16, 2021, comment from President Biden that they’re killing people from fairly senior … Facebook executives, desperately scrambling to get back in the White House’s good graces, assuring them ‘we will do what you want’, we will carry out ‘What the White House expects of us on misinformation going forward’,” Sauer testified.
Sauer said evidence indicates that White House official Rob Flaherty led the pressure campaign and that “virtually everything that I can recall here was lawful First Amendment-protected speech that was being targeted” and said supposed “mal-information” that was true but supposedly lacked context was targeted.
“The characterization of them as suggestions is contradicted by overwhelming evidence,” Sauer said. “To call Mr. Flaherty’s communication ‘suggestions’ is akin to saying that the Earth is flat or the moon is made of green cheese.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) agreed, saying: “When you have these intensely powerful people with the ability to control so many things, even a suggestion is coercive and problematic and worthy of the committee’s review.”
Democrats took turns attempting to flip the script Thursday by accusing Trump of attempting to misuse government power — including by allegedly asking Twitter to censor celebrity Chrissy Teigen’s 2019 tweet calling the 45th president a “p—y ass b—h” — while describing federal outreach to social media firms, particularly on COVID-19 precautions and election fraud claims, as reasonable.
There’s bipartisan momentum to reform some federal policies toward social media — including antitrust enforcement to prevent monopoly power and changes to remove legal immunity for third-party content for platforms under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The specific proposals vary, however.
Thus far, the weaponization subcommittee’s proceedings have been fiercely partisan.
Criticism of government surveillance and censorship programs has been bipartisan at some points in the past, including the Church Committee investigation in the 1970s that exposed the FBI’s COINTELPRO program to infiltrate and discredit civil rights activists and other dissident groups. A bipartisan coalition in 2015 voted to ban the dragnet collection of domestic phone records after whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed that program.