The Chronicle spoke to four U.S. senators, including three Democrats, three former members of Feinstein’s staff, and one California Democrat in Congress about how the longtime senator has been losing her memory, that she often fails to recognize colleagues, and that she is no longer able to engage with the job in the way she used to.
The California Democrat recounted a recent exchange in which they had to reintroduce themselves to Feinstein several times over the course of a single conversation, and that Feinstein kept repeating questions, like asking what mattered most to voters in the lawmaker’s district. “I have worked with her for a long time and long enough to know what she was like just a few years ago: always in command, always in charge, on top of the details, basically couldn’t resist a conversation where she was driving some bill or some idea. All of that is gone,” they said. “She was an intellectual and political force not that long ago, and that’s why my encounter with her was so jarring. Because there was just no trace of that.”
“It’s bad and it’s getting worse,” added a Democratic senator, noting that Feinstein has had difficulty keeping up conversations.
One staffer for a California Democrat said there’s a joke on Capitol Hill that Democrats have “a great junior senator in Alex Padilla and an experienced staff in Feinstein’s office.”
Sen. Padilla was one of a handful of Democrats who defended Feinstein’s cognitive abilities to the Chronicle. So did Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Pelosi said it was “unconscionable that, just weeks after losing her beloved husband of more than four decades and after decades of outstanding leadership to our City and State, she is being subjected to these ridiculous attacks that are beneath the dignity in which she has led and the esteem in which she is held.”
The Chronicle notes its sources’ comments about Feinstein’s declining mental acuity took place before her husband’s death in late February. Feinstein said in a statement to the Chronicle on March 28 that the “last year has been extremely painful and distracting for me, flying back and forth to visit my dying husband who passed just a few weeks ago.”
Feinstein has her defenders, but even those questioning her fitness to serve acknowledged that it was hard to do so because of the immense respect they have for her and what she’s accomplished over the decades she served in Congress. The Intercept’s Ryan Grim spoke to a Democratic staffer who was a little more blunt in their appraisal of the situation. “Feinstein’s decline is an open secret on the Hill and anyone claiming otherwise is a liar,” the staffer said.
This isn’t the first time concern has been raised over Feinstein’s ability to carry out her job. The Chronicle points to 2020 when it was possible that she could head up the Senate Judiciary Committee should Biden win and Democrats control the Senate (Sen. Dick Durbin is the current chair). She told the Los Angeles Times at the time that she didn’t believe her cognitive abilities had declined, but that she “quite possibly” forgot things.
Feinstein would be third in line for the presidency if Democrats retain control of the Senate in November, as Sen. Patrick Leahy’s retirement would make her Senate pro tempore. The only way Feinstein could be removed from office is through her retirement or a two-thirds vote in the Senate. Her term is up in 2024.