A House Judiciary Committee hearing on law enforcement on Thursday morphed into a heated confrontation between GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz and MSNBC's Al Sharpton when the Florida lawmaker challenged the activist and weekend host over past inflammatory comments.
At the hearing on policing practices, Gaetz cited a 2000 resolution from former congressman and fellow MSNBC host Joe Scarborough condemning Sharpton as racist and anti-Semitic before rattling off a laundry list of past quotes from Sharpton and asking whether they were accurate.
“Have you ever referred to members of the Jewish faith as white interlopers or diamond merchants?” Gaetz asked.
After a few moments of the two speaking over each other, Gaetz continued, “Have you ever referred to African-Americans who disagree with you as cocktail-sip Negroes?”
“I have,” Sharpton said.
The congressman later asked Sharpton, “Have you ever said, ‘If the Jews want to get it on, they can pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house?”
Sharpton said that comment was directed at one specific individual who threatened him in 1991, not all Jews.
As the testy exchange continued, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., struggled to keep the hearing moving. With Gaetz and Sharpton clashing, Democratic members asked whether Nadler could shut down Gaetz’s off-topic line of questioning.
Nadler called Gaetz’s questioning “obnoxious” but told committee Dems that the hard-charging congressman had significant latitude under the rules.
Gaetz objected to Nadler’s use of the word “obnoxious” before defending his line of questioning as relevant to the hearing.
“Reverend Sharpton has come before the House Judiciary Committee as a purported expert on policing,” Gaetz said. “Yet his bigoted statements undermine the bipartisan work we should be doing to ensure that all citizens are able to come together and have safe communities.”
The congressman made clear he thought Sharpton’s past comments disqualified him from commenting on racism and policing.
“When you call Greek h---s, when you talk about white crackers, these are bigoted statements,” Gaetz said.
Democratic members, including Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., condemned Gaetz’s behavior, saying that it was off-topic and damaging to the credibility of the House Judiciary Committee.
"This is taking our process down to a level that we should never allow it to descend to,” Johnson said. “I’m objecting to us wallowing in the mud with these comments.”
After Gaetz’s time expired, Sharpton launched one last tongue-in-cheek barb at the congressman before answering further questions.
“I thank the gentleman from Florida for letting me straighten out the distortion and lies on the record that I’ve been misquoted,” Sharpton said. “He’s done a great service for my reputation.”
The tense tone for the hearing was set during witness opening statements, when the president of the Center for Policing Equity, Dr. Phillip Adiba Goff, skipped part of his prepared statement to go after the testimony of the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald, who spoke immediately before him.
She cited a poll saying black Americans favored “broken windows policing” and cited research that black Americans are eight times more likely to commit homicide than whites and Hispanics combined. She also referenced a study that said black civilians were shot by police less often compared with whites than their rates of violent crime would predict.
“My love of country and my respect for this body, and mostly my vocation as a scientist will not allow me to move to my prepared remarks just yet,” Goff said in response. “I feel I must at least correct the record.”
The hearing also included testimony from other activists, including former tennis professional James Blake – who has advocated against police brutality after his 2015 arrest by a New York City Police Department officer who mistook him for a suspect in a credit card fraud case – and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after an encounter with the NYPD.
Fraternal Order of Police President Patrick Yoes and National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Professionals executive board member Gina Hawkins testified as well.