Representative Katie Porter begins her second term in office with a reputation as the rare elected official who came to Washington to actually get shit done—usually by cutting congressional witnesses down to size with withering interrogations that feature both a whiteboard of doom and the attitude of a mom who is done with your bullshit. Be it Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan, who resigned two weeks after she caught him in a lie claiming his bank’s fraud-happy days were a thing of the past; ex-pharma exec Mark Alles, who basically shriveled up and died as she showed he collected millions while jacking up the price of a lifesaving drug for no other reason than greed; or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield, who tried to hide behind bureaucratic nonsense before giving up and agreeing to free coronavirus testing just so she would stop publicly tormenting him, witnesses quiver in fear at the mere mention of her name. (While raising three kids and repping California’s 45th congressional district—which includes parts of Orange County—presumably leaves Porter no time for reality TV, we assume her RHOC tagline would be “Come at America and you’re gonna get a whiteboard marker up the ass.”) The congresswoman chatted with Vanity Fair earlier this month, and again after the attack on Capitol Hill, to discuss everything from how she prepares for her viral hearings to holding Donald Trump accountable to the never-ending depths of Republican assholery.
Vanity Fair: Do you think Joe Biden‘s Justice Department should criminally charge Trump for inciting the attack on the Capitol? What do you expect the outcome of the second impeachment trial to be?
Rep. Katie Porter: There definitely need to be consequences for Donald Trump, and I think impeachment is actually, based on the facts that I have, the correct way to do that. I don’t have access to or really know enough about the legal theories for incitement, for insurrection…I’m not a criminal lawyer so I can’t really answer that question about the Justice Department, although I do think it’s really important that they do that analysis and make their findings clear so that the American people understand why there are or aren’t charges being brought. We want to take the politics out of the criminal justice system as much as possible.
With regard to impeachment, I think that clearly is warranted. I voted for it, and I think it’s appropriate for the Senate to have a trial. I’m not going to put myself in the shoes of people like Ted Cruz. I struggle to understand how he thinks, if [thinking] is what goes on in his head at all. I do think it’s really important that the Senate take this seriously and that we do not allow the fact that Joe Biden is now our president to change the process for Donald Trump. We can’t let him evade responsibility for his actions. My job is to make that decision about impeachment and to urge my Senate colleagues to have a robust trial.
Can you make a public plea to appeal to them—to the Ted Cruzes, to the Lindsey Grahams who have been on Fox suggesting it was Nancy Pelosi’s fault there wasn’t better security as opposed to focusing on what the former president did?
Well, the security responsibilities come from both the Senate and the House, and the attack was on both chambers of the Capitol and of course fundamentally on the Capitol Police officers and staff members who were put in a lot of danger, as well as [congressional] members. I think the pressure here should come from the American public, from people on both sides of the aisle who are appalled at the fact that we would ever suggest violence is a solution to overturn an act of democracy. It’s important to understand what happened in the Capitol for what it is. It was a violent attack. It was a workplace shooting. There may have been people there protesting, but there were hundreds if not thousands of people who broke the law and put lives at risk. So that is the way they ought to be thinking about this—not from a political angle but from what these people did and then holding them accountable. I’m encouraged that the FBI and others have been making arrests. I think it’s really important. This was not speech. This was a criminal act.
Obviously I want to talk about the whiteboard. Every time it comes out we know people are going to get a dry-erase enema. How do you prepare for these hearings? I heard you say in a podcast that colleagues are always asking you how you do it, and one of the things you said was, “You have to be really prepared but you also have to be a little bit brave.” How do you find that bravery or badassery?
With regard to preparation, we start as soon as we find out, and sometimes it’s a few days’ notice, sometimes it’s a few weeks. I always try to start from not a topic really but an answer—like what do we want to know, what is the change we want to make? For me, this goes back to teaching. At the top of my lesson plans I always had: these are the questions I want to ask the students, these are the points I want to make, but I always had at the very top what I wanted the students to understand at the end of the day. So we always think about what that is. And then we begin to develop some lines of questioning. My staff will take a first draft, they often won’t get it done fast enough, so I’ll get in there and look at it, we’ll eliminate a couple. I’ll do background reading, they’ll do background reading. Part of my questioning of Jamie Dimon grew out of the fact that the night before the hearing I read the JPMorgan corporate report and his attitude was one of “There as so many problems in this country,” and I wanted to know, well how would you fix them? So it’s really thinking about that and then it’s rehearsing. You have to think about all of the tools that you have; it’s not just the words that you say. It’s the look on your face; it’s the tone of your voice; it’s the pacing. I’m trying to get an answer and I’m going to use every tool that I can, whether it’s a prop or a look to get there.
That thing about bravery, there’s also an analogy to teaching. The very easiest thing to do as a teacher is lecture. You don’t ever lose control, you stand there, you talk, they play whatever today’s version of Candy Crush is, and you lecture. When you ask a student what the answer is, you’re taking the very real risk that they won’t know. But what you’re conveying to the students as you ask questions, which is the same thing I’m trying to convey to both the American public and to the witnesses, is this is not my problem, this is our problem. This is not my hearing, this is our hearing. I’m not asking Steve Mnuchin questions because I want answers, I’m asking Steve Mnuchin questions because the country deserves answers. You’re talking to someone who’s getting her license plate changed so that it says “Oversight,” OVRSITE—I’m very excited, I’m getting it on the minivan—so I see the value in accountability.
So when you open that up to that back-and-forth, then you are creating that collective sense of, we’re all trying to figure this out, we’re all in this moment. And I think that, as much as the whiteboard and anything else, is what draws people into those hearings. In terms of being brave, I think it’s safe to say I’m not one to back away from what I think is right. It does take a toll. When I finished questioning [Postmaster General] Louis DeJoy, I turned the Zoom off and just cried. I was like, I don’t think I got it. I wasn’t sure how it went, if I exposed some of the things I really wanted to. There was a lot of adrenaline in the moment, and there’s no do-overs. I used to walk out of the classroom and would be so drained.
I’m often very, very drained after these moments. I head straight for the Diet Dr. Pepper and frequently collapse on my couch. I have a little drawer of goodies. I found some See’s candy in there the other day and they’d been there like nine months, but that stuff is apparently full of preservatives because they weren’t that bad. I ran for Congress to fight for what’s right. I’d rather not have to. But if that’s the choice available to me, [I’ll take it]. So I always try to plan my questioning to make it easy for the witness to do the right thing. But if they’re not going to, then I’m prepared.
Biden called the most recent relief bill passed by Congress a “down payment.” You said last month it was vital aid for millions of people, but not perfect. What do you want to see next from Congress in terms of getting people the help they need?
First, I want to say that we have to stop thinking about the pandemic as nearly over. This mentality has led us to do short-term things or to try to hold out, [but] economic recessions don’t just go away. When we voted on this bill in July we said, we’re going to re-up these programs. Looking back, we should have built more durable programs that would’ve worked better in the long term. That’s why I supported the Paycheck Guarantee Act, the paycheck recovery approach that every other country in the world is using, because I think it’s a more durable solution.
The other thing is, this longing for the return of the status quo I find deeply troubling and really fundamentally unsatisfying. As a single working mom, knowing that having a child is the single best predictor of bankruptcy in this country, that one third of all people in poverty are parents and their children, I don’t know that the status quo offered me enough. So this is why I really do like the Biden Build Back Better idea. And I also really, really approve of how he’s conceiving of building as way beyond bridges and roads. So I think, Congress’s bag of tricks was what it was. [But] there are [some] programs we look back on and think, why did we ever design the [Paycheck Protection Program] so that Congress could take advantage of it?
Or Jared Kushner.
There were problems. Relying on the unemployment departments to do so much when those are underfunded. So I think the longer question here is, what are the changes we want to make to our country? Congress has a huge role in thinking about in what areas do we need to do better. And what will that look like and for me is long-term investment in health and health equality, in childcare, making sure that women and people of color and particularly women of color do not suffer long-term consequences of exiting the workforce.
On the childcare aspect, I read the report you put out with the statistic that 22% of women have left the workforce. What do you think it’ll take for people in power to understand that the pandemic made being a working parent basically impossible, but before all of this it was still ridiculously hard? It would be great if we had 100 more Katie Porters in office, but is it going to take the majority of Congress experiencing this firsthand to say, “Wow this is really hard and we should help you because it would actually benefit us and the economy?”
I don’t know. I certainly welcome more single parents to Congress—we actually have two more single moms joining us, they’re both Republican women—but it’s important to think about not just being here but being effective here. So as we look at the creation of this new select committee on economic disparity, I have been asking the Speaker to serve on it. As I said, one third of women in poverty are mothers of young children. We have to be coming up with a plan on this. I do think one of the things that has changed with my generation is the number of men who identify these as key issues. When I look at my Help America Run Act, which allows people to use campaign donations to cover childcare while they’re campaigning just like they could cover mileage to get to the campaign event, besides me most of the other people taking advantage of that were men with young kids. That’s terrific. Because that’s helping us to conceive of something that’s affecting all of us. So part of my wish list is to continue to see childcare, things like family leave, not be the issues of the Democratic Women’s Caucus but to be the issues of the joint economic committee. That to me is a very important transition and one I am committed to being a part of.
Do you think a generational shift would be helpful in getting people to understand that this isn’t just a working moms’ issue?
I do think it’s helpful to have that generational shift. There are other structural economic issues that divide the generations. Elizabeth Warren, when she tells her story, one of the things she talks about is going to college for like $50 a semester. I used to hear her give that speech and I would get to that part and think, This isn’t a very good speech. And I realized after a while, it’s because it doesn’t reflect my life. Now I think Elizabeth’s point was exactly that. It’s not “I’ve been through this,” it’s, “look how different things have become in one generation, now two generations.” So I think the change is generational. The idea of having student debt, of being unable to afford a home, the constant worry that Social Security will not be there.
I had a conversation with my dad a couple of months ago that I thought was really telling. I said something about insurance companies and he said, “You know, Katherine, when your sister had an emergency appendectomy and was in the ICU”—she got terribly sick, her appendix burst and she had a temporary colostomy—he said, “Blue Cross paid for all of that except $1,000 and I thought that was a pretty darn good deal.” And I said, “Dad, that’s exactly it. If Emily had gotten sick today, she would have been at an out-of-network hospital, her anesthesiologist would have been out-of-network, and the deductible wouldn’t have been $1,000, it would have been $5,000, and there would have been co-insurance and an out-of-pocket maximum of $30,000.” That’s another example of these generational shifts. So I think that as much as we’re emphasizing diversity, I think that generational diversity is really, really important. And that goes into understanding the economic issues. Because as much as issues like racism have endured, the economic issues have become very different from one generation to another.
Is there any hope of getting you [back] on the Financial Services Committee? Will that waiver come though?
At this time I don’t believe so. I’m very excited about continuing my work on the Oversight Committee and being able to join that natural resources committee. There’s so much important work to do in undoing some of the damage Trump has done to our public lands, to our oceans. I want to be very clear: I will continue to ask vigorous questions, to try to get answers for the American people, regardless of what committee I’m on. And I’m also not going to back away from being active on the issue of families struggling to make ends meet. If I think there’s a better approach, if I have a good idea about financial services, I’m going to file those bills and I’m going to push to be heard on them.
I read that at the beginning of the pandemic you gave your children daily briefings, and as you described them to Samantha Bee, they were basically, “If you don’t behave you’re going to die.”
Yes, that has been said.
Can you, can Biden, can someone start doing these for the public? Because it feels like it’s not enough to say, “Wear a mask, stop the spread.” Dr. Fauci has been very clear, but it feels like we need your “Cut the shit, this is how it is” approach because the COVID-19 numbers are astonishing. In California there are basically no ICU beds left. How do we get through to people?
One of the things that’s going to change with Joe Biden is that I hope we start to see folks like Dr. Fauci and others who are very, very good speakers and communicators, I hope we see their voices elevated. My view is that we ought to be putting people on TV—that the government ought to be undertaking a public health campaign. I think there’s a lot of room to do that. I also think a lot of damage has been done, not only in lives lost but in minds that have been made up. It’s not as simple as putting the genie back in the bottle. I do think that there are really huge lessons, for example, about testing. We should not allow insurers to be involved in vaccination. Period. Full stop. Are we going to do that? Unclear. The same statute that I used in that exchange with CDC director Redfield to cover testing, it actually says “vaccine” in it. I think it was interesting watching how much people craved Governor [Andrew] Cuomo’s or Governor [Gavin] Newsom’s [daily press conferences], so I do think there’s a huge opportunity for Biden to rethink how to establish regular communication. If it’s not going to be all-caps ridiculous tweets—thank God—what is it going to be? But I don’t know at this point, if you’re not wearing a mask, how we get you there. I don’t think it’s that they don’t know.
In terms of the vaccine rollout, it doesn’t seem to be going well.
There have actually been some success stories in there. There was a terrific story in the L.A. Times about a hospital in Mendocino County, California, their freezer failed and their vaccine only had a couple of hours of lifespan, and they managed to give out every dose at four different locations around the county. I do think the rollout will improve dramatically when the Biden administration takes over…it’s infuriating to watch people who called this a hoax or refused to wear a mask go get a vaccine. It is also, from a public health standpoint, a good outcome. So we can’t let our fury at the hypocrisy of the past cost us and risk lives. My sister was like, “AHHHSLLDJFLDKLK,” but I was like, what’s the alternative?
I need [those people] to signal [that it’s safe]. I got my vaccine. But my sister and brother-in-law got their first doses and my brother-in-law became sick seven days later because he was exposed. The vaccine is a seven-week thing, and even after that you can [potentially] still get infected, you just won’t get sick, so we have to continue the public health measures. That’s a thing we need to keep amplifying. Just like in the debate about masking—we did several Twitter posts hinting at this—the most important thing you can do is stay home. Rather than going out and about and yelling at non-maskers, turn on The Crown! We took a picture of my refrigerator packed full to emphasize it’s actually staying home that is the safest thing.
Could you do it more forcefully given your huge following—just say, “Stay the fuck home”?
I think we have to understand that the people who are following me are largely probably staying at home, are largely probably wearing masks. When I think about what I’m most proud of here as my first term in Congress has ended, it’s the moments that I feel that I’ve gotten through to people who don’t believe in government—who are Republicans or who don’t like government at all, who are young or old…Those are the moments that we need to have, including from a public health standpoint. But we’re up against a ticking clock because people are getting sick every day.
You called out Mitch McConnell for insisting that corporations get immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits. At this point, it feels like Republicans can’t really surprise us with the depths of their assholery—
I wouldn’t say that.
When he comes up with stuff like that, do you ever just say to yourself, “What the fuck is wrong with you”?
No. I am not nearly as troubled, I think, by the two-party Republican-Democrat disagreement as many people are. I sort of embrace it as a healthy part of democracy. Where it becomes unhealthy and dysfunctional—President Trump is a great example of this, Mitch McConnell is [also] a great example. He’s trying to do right—for his big corporate donors, he’s trying to give away what they want. And it is my job and the job of every other person, Democrat or Republican, who wants to stand up for what is truly right, to resist him. I don’t really find that tiring—that’s democracy. It’s my job to come in and vote in the other direction and to help elect more people who will vote in the other direction and to help convince more Americans why that is the right thing. So as much as I completely opposed Mitch McConnell on corporate immunity—that was a very wrong, wrong priority—what has made me most angry about him, or disappointed in him, or frustrated with him, is his refusal to bring bills to the Senate floor. Because that is a broken democracy.
So I spend almost no time complaining about the Chip Roys of the world. Well, Chip, no. I don’t know what to tell you, Chip, not today. And this is how I think I navigate my district. I don’t find the constituents who disagree with me to be troubling; I see an opportunity. Tell me why. Here’s how I think about it, what do you make of this, what about this outcome is that what you really want? What I see in [someone like] Mitch McConnell is the removal of opportunity. And I think I’m an unusual member in this regard. A lot of my colleagues are like, being in the minority is terrible. But I’m not bothered by the existence of a minority. I represent a majority Republican district.
I don’t know your constituents, but I assume they don’t have the pure evil of Mitch McConnell.
The majority of my Republican constituents voted for Donald Trump. Again. That’s not the majority of all of my constituents because I have a blend of Democrats and no-party-preference voters and Republicans. But I just think we can’t be afraid of debate. I think we can’t be afraid of disagreement. That’s part of democracy. What we should fear is when democracy breaks down so we can’t have those debates.
You were just named the deputy chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. How do you plan to move the more moderate Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration toward your priorities?
I think the goal is to move the American people and to lift up the voices of those who I believe are already the majority of America who agree with some of these priorities. If you’re doing that, the other part follows. The Progressive Caucus just released its new platform, which has seven priorities. You’re not supposed to have favorites among your children, but number seven is perhaps my favorite, which is about ending corporate greed and corporate monopoly. It’s about creating an economy that is a stable, strong, healthy, capitalistic economy that provides opportunity for everybody. There are lots of ways to do that: through antitrust enforcement, through taxation, through investor protections, consumer protections, good corporate governance structures. One of the things I’ve been most proud of is that when I got on [the] Financial Services [committee], this was not considered a committee you went to because there would be a lot of press coverage—that was Judiciary, that was even Oversight. What I tried to show is people want to talk about this and they want to be heard on these topics.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s inauguration is obviously an important day. But I also want to caution people: Nothing stops. There’s no pause button in democracy. And so the very next day we have to figure out how we’re going to hold Joe Biden to his promises. I want people to understand that you have to pace yourself through this, and that’s not my strong point, I have trouble with this. You have to pace yourself through this because it isn’t done with the election of Joe Biden, it isn’t done with the election of anybody. And I think that trying to create ways for constituents to engage in nonelection moments—for me that’s what the hearings are about. That’s what really electrifies me: thinking about how to create those kinds of moments.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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