Rao appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday for a confirmation hearing, where Democrats took aim at her writings on sexual assault during her time at Yale University.
While writing opinion columns for Yale University’s student newspaper in 1994, Rao stated: “Unless someone made her drinks undetectably strong or forced them down her throat, a woman, like a man, decides when and how much to drink. And if she drinks to the point where she can no longer choose, well, getting to that point was a part of her choice.”
In other writings, Rao also derided LGBTQ rights as part of a “trendy” political movement and questioned the science behind global warming.
Rao distanced herself from those comments during Tuesday’s hearing, saying: “To be honest, looking back at some of those writings … I cringe at some of the language I used.”
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She added that there are some sentences and phrases from her college writing in the 1990s that she would “never use today.”
Rao currently serves as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
If confirmed, Rao would be the first South Asian woman to serve on a federal appeals court.
During the hearing, she said her experience in the White House and as a former Judiciary Committee staffer, law professor and Supreme Court clerk qualified her to join the D.C.-based appeals court, widely viewed as the nation’s second-most important court.
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Trump nominated Rao for the seat left vacant when Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh made headlines last year when he was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice following sexual assault allegations by several women, including Christine Blasey Ford, who testified before the Senate.
Among those to criticize Rao on Tuesday was Sen. Joni Ernst, who recently revealed that she was raped by her boyfriend in college.
Ernst said Rao’s writings “give me pause,” in part because of the message they send to young women who may be reluctant to report a rape.
Rao defended herself by saying rape is a “horrible crime” and that anyone who commits rape should be prosecuted.
She added that suggesting women should stay sober to avoid placing themselves at risk was merely “common sense” advice that her own mother gave her.
Sen. Kamala Harris, who has announced that she will be running for president in 2020, tweeted that Rao’s defence was not good enough.
“Here’s the bottom line: survivors of sexual assault should not be blamed for the trauma they’ve experienced,” Harris tweeted.
“Neomi Rao’s prior writings about sexual assault are completely unacceptable, and her responses to my questions today were deeply troubling.”
Senate Republicans pushed back against Rao’s critics, saying her writings were not outside the mainstream. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said her advice not to drink to the point of losing self-control was good advice for men and women.
Rao’s nomination also drew criticism outside the Senate.
Shiwali Patel, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, called Rao a “rape apologist” and said her promotion to the D.C.-based appeals court would endanger women.
“Barely a few months after the country heard from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford about sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh, a rape apologist could potentially fill his seat on the D.C. Circuit,” Patel said.
—With files from the Associated Press