Sen. Dianne Feinstein Responds After Colleagues' Accounts That Her Memory Is Deteriorating

“It’s bad, and it’s getting worse,” a Democratic senator said of the California lawmaker — who said in a statement, "I'm still an effective representative"

Ranking member U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) questions Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett as she testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the second day of her Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill
Dianne Feinstein. Photo: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty

Colleagues of Dianne Feinstein are speaking out — some on the record and others anonymously — about the California Democrat's future in the Senate at the same time that she is responding to their concerns about her fitness for office.

In a recent policy meeting, a fellow lawmaker told The San Francisco Chronicle in a story published Thursday, Feinstein repeated herself and appeared to forget topics already discussed. At 88, she is the oldest senator, a few months ahead of Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley.

"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," the lawmaker, who according to the Chronicle asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the matter, said in an interview weeks before Feinstein's husband, Richard Blum, died in late February.

"She was an intellectual and political force not that long ago, and that's why my encounter with her was so jarring," the lawmaker added then. "Because there was just no trace of that."

In the Chronicle's lengthy report, four U.S. senators, including three Democrats, and three former staffers and a California Democrat serving in the House of Representatives all said Feinstein's memory was deteriorating to the point that they felt she could not fulfill her job duties without the help of her staff.

In a statement to PEOPLE shared by her press team, Feinstein pushed back on these accounts of infirmity.

"I remain committed to do what I said I would when I was re-elected in 2018: fight for Californians, especially on the economy and the key issues for California of water and fire," she said in the statement.

"While I have focused for much of the past year on my husband's health and ultimate passing, I have remained committed to achieving results and I'd put my record up against anyone's," she continued.

"In the past few months, I successfully led the reauthorization of the bipartisan Violence Against Women Act, secured more direct government funding for my state than any other Democratic senator other than the chairman of the Appropriations Committee and secured additional funding to retain federal firefighters to help California prepare for the upcoming wildfire season."

"The real question is whether I'm still an effective representative for 40 million Californians, and the record shows that I am," she also said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Richard Blum
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

The Chronicle story is not the first to cite concerns about Feinstein's health and acuity, and her age has been a campaign issue before.

Politico reported in 2020, for example, that some lawmakers felt then that she could no longer effectively lead — in particular as the potential Judiciary Committee chair presiding over hearings.

In an interview with Politico, however, she said she was "really surprised and taken aback by" such arguments. "Because I try to be very careful and I'm puzzled by it."

"My attendance is good, I do the homework, I try to ask hard questions," she said at the time. "I stand up for what I believe in." (Feinstein also isn't the first senator to face such issues: Mississippi's Thad Cochran resigned in 2018 at age 80, citing health issues, amid chatter about his physical stamina and mental acumen.)

The lawmakers interviewed in the new Chronicle piece said that Feinstein's memory problems seemed sporadic. At times, she was coherent and appeared composed, according to the report, which cited her turns questioning Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearings last month as an example of her good days.

On her bad days, the sources told the Chronicle, she seemed unable to recognize colleagues she had worked with for a long time.

"It's bad, and it's getting worse," a Democratic senator said.

Feinstein was first elected to the Senate in 1992, becoming one of the first two women (along with former Sen. Barbara Boxer) to serve there.

Feinstein filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission in 2021, which seemed to indicate she would run for a sixth term in 2024 at 91, though a spokesperson said then that the filing was merely an administrative move that "doesn't speak to the senator's future plans at all."

Sen. Alex Padilla, who was selected by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace Kamala Harris after she was elected vice president, said in January that he'd heard some of the concerns about Feinstein but defended her against the claims she was no longer able to fulfill her duties.

"As someone who sees her multiple times a week, including on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I can tell you she's still doing the job and doing it well," he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also a Democrat from California, addressed the concerns of others in a statement to the Chronicle.

"Senator Feinstein is a workhorse for the people of California and a respected leader among her colleagues in the Senate," she said. "She is constantly traveling between California and the Capitol, working relentlessly to ensure Californians' needs are met and voices are heard."

Dianne Feinstein, Richard Blum
Jeff Chiu/AP/Shutterstock

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."

Another California member of Congress expressed what the report described as a "sense of resignation" as well as "sadness and frustration" among those concerned but unable to persuade Feinstein to step down.

"It shouldn't end this way for her. She deserves better," the Democratic lawmaker said. "Those who think that they are serving her or honoring her by sweeping all of this under the rug are doing her an enormous disservice."

One lawmaker alluded to the classic folktale by Hans Christian Andersen about subjects reluctant to state the obvious, if embarrassing, truth about their proud ruler.

"We've got an 'Emperor's New Clothes' problem here," the congressperson said.

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