No matter what South Carolina senator Tim Scott does, he can’t seem to win.
Earlier this week, it was reported that Scott planned to vote in favor of federal judge Thomas Farr, nominated by President Trump to be a district judge in North Carolina. This news was greeted with derision by some members of the press, notably Jennifer Rubin, the Washington Post’s so-called conservative columnist (who ceased resembling a conservative around the same time that Trump ceased resembling a Democrat).
“What a fraud he is on civil rights,” Rubin tweeted of the Republican senator on Wednesday. This would be a preposterous accusation regardless of how Scott chose to vote on Farr’s nomination, but as it happens, Rubin’s insult wasn’t only unfair. It also jumped the gun.
On Thursday, Scott announced that he would in fact be opposing Farr’s nomination, citing in part his concerns about Farr’s alleged connection to intimidation campaigns against African-American voters. Scott was joined by outgoing senator Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), who says he’ll vote against every judicial nomination until the Senate approves legislation protecting special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia.
Over the summer, Scott also opposed the nomination of Ryan Bounds to be a U.S. circuit judge. Scott was joined by Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), and together they made it impossible for the Senate to push the nomination through. At the time, Scott expressed concern over the racial insensitivity of writing that Bounds had done in college.
Even if Scott had chosen to vote in favor of Farr this week, calling the Republican a fraud on civil rights would still be quite a stretch — especially given Scott’s preoccupation with racial justice and how seriously he seems to take his role as the sole African-American member of the GOP caucus in the upper chamber.
Anyone who takes this line is either frightfully ignorant or has willfully chosen to disregard the many examples of Scott’s obvious and active concern for minorities. Consider his speech on the Senate floor in July 2016, when he addressed the spate of police shootings unfolding across the country.
In his remarks, he said that as recently as 2015, he’d been stopped by a Capitol police officer, even though he was wearing his member’s pin: “The officer looked at me, full of attitude, and said: ‘The pin, I know. You, I don’t. Show me your ID,’” the senator explained. “I’ll tell you, I was thinking to myself, either he thinks I’m committing a crime — impersonating a member of Congress — or what?”
During just one year as an elected official, Scott was stopped seven times by law enforcement while driving, and he said on the floor that the vast majority of those encounters were the result of “nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood, or some other reason just as trivial.”
It was a landmark moment. Scott consistently acknowledged the essential work of the police and the rarity of police violence — largely supporting the usual conservative line on the issue — but he presented his own experience to push back against the far-right claim that racial prejudice is no longer a problem in modern America.
What’s more, despite aligning with the Trump-administration agenda more often than not, Scott hasn’t hesitated to oppose the president when he believes he’s out of line — as he did with the Farr and Bounds nominations.
“The best advice is not to speak every time there’s something to be critical of, especially if you don’t speak every time there’s something to be positive about,” Scott told National Review this summer. “But if you find something that is jugular, speak up. I think you should pick and choose your battles, so to speak.”
When Trump referred to several Latin-American and African nations as “sh**hole countries,” Scott criticized him harshly. And his strongest rebuke of the president came after the August 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, when Trump said there were good people on both sides of the violence.
“I’m not going to defend the indefensible. I’m not here to do that,” Scott said at the time.
As with his “no” votes on nominations, Scott’s criticism had a measurable effect. After Charlottesville, the White House called and asked the senator to meet with Trump to discuss the issue.
Scott told National Review that he and the president failed to agree on the harmfulness of those comments, but some good did come of the meeting. Trump ended up agreeing to champion Scott’s signature opportunity-zones legislation, and as a result, it was eventually incorporated into the tax reform that passed at the end of last year.
Scott’s opportunity-zones idea is perhaps the best legislative example of how he blends his inherent conservatism with concern for Americans in need. It identifies “opportunity zones” across the country in particular need of economic help and allows individuals to delay capital-gains taxes if they invest in these zones and keep their investments in place for at least seven years, encouraging long-term involvement that Scott hopes will give impoverished areas a boost.
With his vote against this latest nomination, Scott has shown once again that he has no interest in being a rubber stamp on the GOP agenda, and he has more than earned a reputation as a leader who cares about civil rights.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., took place in August 2016. It took place in 2017.