The hearing of the committee investigating the politicization of the federal government largely saw Republicans defend Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and decry Democrats’ protests over his presence | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. testified before Congress on Thursday in a divisive hearing on federal government “censorship” of Americans’ free speech on social media, sparking tense exchanges between Democrats and Republicans over his remarks on vaccines and the Covid-19 pandemic.

The hearing of the committee investigating the politicization of the federal government, which also touched on social media companies’ handling of the Hunter Biden laptop story and ongoing government efforts to work with social media companies to take down disinformation and misinformation, largely saw Republicans defend Kennedy and decry Democrats’ protests over his presence before the committee as “censorship.” Democrats, in turn, argued that Republicans were “co-signing” Kennedy’s views on vaccines and medical science by providing Kennedy a “megaphone.”

Here are the three key moments from Kennedy’s testimony.

Wasserman Schultz confronts Kennedy on Holocaust comparisons, antisemitic remarks

Democrats largely did not engage with Kennedy and used their time to protest Kennedy’s invitation or ask questions of their witness, civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley, about the impact of Kennedy’s statements on race and ethnicity, and the broader problem of disinformation on social media platforms.

But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who had raised an unsuccessful motion at the outset of the hearing to move the committee into executive session over Kennedy’s past remarks on the effects of the Covid-19 virus on Asian and Jewish people, did confront Kennedy directly for his comments about Covid-19 health policies and the Holocaust.

During a press event at an Upper East Side restaurant last week, Kennedy claimed that the Covid-19 virus was “targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people” before adding that “the people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.” Kennedy then said that Chinese researchers are making “ethnic bioweapons” and collecting data samples from different ethnic groups “so we can target people by race.” The video was first reported on by The New York Post.

Wasserman Schultz opened her line of questioning by saying she wanted to give Kennedy “a chance to correct his statements and repair some of the harm that he’s helped cause” and asked Kennedy whether he was aware of the historical trend of blaming Jewish people for disease outbreaks.

After Kennedy acknowledged that those claims were part of the “blood libel,” Wasserman Schultz asked Kennedy whether he saw the connections between that historical scapegoating of Jewish people and his remark that Covid-19 was “bioengineered” to spare Jews and people of Chinese descent.

Kennedy countered that Wasserman Schultz was “misrepresenting” his remarks, which he claimed were supported by a study from the Cleveland Clinic. The ongoing Cleveland Clinic study, which looked at the genomes of over 81,000 people, has posited that people with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry and people of Asian ancestry are genetically less susceptible to contracting Covid-19 but has made no claims that Covid-19 was “an ethnic bioweapon.”

Wasserman Schultz confronted Kennedy over his invocations of the Holocaust in reference to lockdowns and stay-at-home orders issued during the pandemic. “You made light of the genocide against Jewish people,” she said, before asking Kennedy whether he thought “it was easy for Jewish people to escape systemic slaughter.” Kennedy acknowledged that the comparisons were wrong.

Massey, Roy embrace natural immunity, raise concerns over risks of vaccines

While most Republicans focused their comments and questions on censorship and free speech, two Republicans devoted significant portions of their time to discussions of natural immunity and risks associated with some vaccines.

At the end of his allotted questioning time, House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said that while he was “grateful that we have the opportunity to have the polio vaccine,” he also wanted “to know the health impacts of the polio vaccine going forward and every other vaccine being administered.”

The polio vaccine has received new scrutiny, especially in conservative circles, as outbreaks of polio have emerged in the United States and around the world. While oral-dose vaccines that contain live polio viruses have been linked to outbreaks of polio, usually as a result of unvaccinated individuals coming into contact with contaminated wastewater, standard polio vaccines have not been linked to outbreaks.

During the exchange, Kennedy, who has touted a now-debunked study published in The Lancet that claimed that mercury in common vaccines caused an increase in childhood autism, said he became a vaccine skeptic out of concerns about mercury and its apparent effects on health. “These mothers were coming and saying my child was injured by the vaccine, these many, many hundreds,” Kennedy said. “I felt like I should listen to them and actually read the science.”

Later in the hearing, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who opposed mask and vaccine mandates during the pandemic, asked Kennedy about efforts by social media to limit debate about natural immunity. Some immunologists argued that natural immunity, the immune protection humans develop after contracting and successfully recovering from an infectious disease, would provide better long-term protection than widespread vaccination. No evidence has emerged showing that natural immunity was better at preventing reinfection and disease transmission within a community than widespread vaccination. They have shown that natural immunity mirrored the protection offered by two doses of an mRNA vaccine.

Kennedy argued that U.S. Covid data showed that widespread vaccination did little to stop the spread of Covid. “We have 4.2 percent of the global population and 16 percent of global Covid deaths,” Kennedy said before citing lower Covid death rates in impoverished countries like Haiti and Nigeria. Many countries in the Caribbean and Africa experienced lower death rates from Covid-19, but experts believe this was largely the result of strict travel rules at the outset of the pandemic, as well as younger populations less prone to noncommunicable conditions like obesity, cancer, diabetes and autoimmune disorders, among other factors.

Plaskett highlights ties between Kennedy and Republicans

Ranking member Stacey Plaskett (D-V.I.) noted the ties between Kennedy and Republican operatives in her remarks.

In her questioning, Plaskett focused on Jason Boles, the treasurer of Heal the Divide, Kennedy’s super PAC, showing his Twitter profile, which included the phrases “MAGA” and “AmericaFirst,” on a screen in the committee room. Plaskett also showed FEC filings that listed him as the treasurer for committees supporting Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and George Santos (R-N.Y.), and noted that Boles had supported the Republican candidate, Herschel Walker, in the 2022 Georgia senate race.

“This is an individual who personally and professionally wants the Republican Party to succeed,” Plaskett said in reference to Boles.

Democrats have argued that Republicans are using Kennedy, who is challenging President Joe Biden for the 2024 Democratic nomination, to weaken the president’s chances ahead of the general election and help Republicans take the White House.

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