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A Kennedy is slammed by Democrats. RFK Jr. becomes a Republican star

A Kennedy is suddenly a Republican star: RFK Jr. keeps appearing on Fox News. He was invited Thursday to Capitol Hill by Republicans. Kennedy says he was there to talk censorship. Democrats fret he may wind up helping to elect Donald Trump.

Some Democrats fear RFK Jr.'s longshot presidential bid could help send Trump back to the White House in 2024

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In the storied history of a family sometimes likened to American royalty, Thursday marked an unusual plot twist.

The Kennedy family, stalwart Democrats, has produced one former president, three major presidential candidates, senators and congressmen — but never quite something like this.

A Kennedy running for president was berated by fellow Democrats while starring as the guest of the opposing party on Capitol Hill.

Robert Kennedy Jr., a lawyer, environmentalist, and, his critics allege, a prolific conspiracy theorist, appeared as the top witness at a hearing on censorship hosted by congressional Republicans.

Completing Thursday's bizarro-world theme, right after the hearing, Kennedy went straight to yet another appearance on the network where he's a frequent guest: Fox News.

He spent the bulk of the day being assailed by Democratic members of Congress as a conspiracy-peddler, a crank, and a dupe helping elect Donald Trump.

"I revere your name," said a Virginia Democrat, Rep. Gerry Connolly, scolding Kennedy.

"You are here for cynical reasons to be used politically by that side of the aisle to embarrass the current president of the United States. And you're an enabler in that effort today. And it brings shame on a storied name that I revere."

Longshot primary challenge to Biden

Kennedy is running a longshot campaign to unseat Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination. Primaries are scheduled for early next year.

But what Democrats are really worried about is an event several months later: the U.S. general election in November 2024.

Black and white photo outside white house

Democrats have been increasingly vocal lately about their fear that a series of political paper cuts could bleed a decisive number of votes in the presidential election.

It wouldn't take much.

Had Joe Biden won just 42,918 fewer votes last time, less than a half-percentage point in the three closest swing states, Trump would still be president.

What Democrats fear

Democrats have been fretting that a few attacks could make the difference: from Kennedy, from the progressive left, and from the centre, with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin this week weighing a third-party candidacy.

Kennedy's actual campaign itself? Few expect it to get very far.

He's down anywhere between 47 and 57 points behind Biden in recent national surveys and 60 points in the primary state of New Hampshire. Virtually every poll shows him about twice as popular with Republicans as with Democrats.

That's a challenge, if you're running as a Democrat.

Marc Trussler, director of data science at the University of Pennsylvania's Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies, said Kennedy might contribute to depressing support for Biden, though he thinks Manchin running would be a far bigger problem.

As for Kennedy winning the Democratic nomination, Trussler views it as inconceivable.

"There's an extremely limited pool of Democratic voters who will find RFK appealing once they find out about his issue positions," Trussler said.

Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum asks RFK Jr. in the gentlest possible way to "put it in your own words" his comments that "reports indicate there may have been some genetic direction for this virus if it was manipulated." <a href="https://t.co/8WHZEk0Vs2">pic.twitter.com/8WHZEk0Vs2</a>

&mdash;@justinbaragona

Those opinions include opposition to arming Ukraine, hostility to the COVID vaccine, and conspiracy-mongering about measles vaccines.

He's been repudiated in the past by his own family over his vaccine stance and again in more recent remarks by his nephew and sister, who called them deplorable.

Kennedy had suggested unvaccinated people in some ways have fewer freedoms than Holocaust victim Anne Frank. Kennedy has apologized for that.

But he has not apologized for suggesting at a dinner that the virus behind COVID-19 may have been targeted ethnically to spare Chinese people and Jews.

Kennedy says he was simply referring to a government-published study on disproportionate effects on different ethnic groups; that study was not nearly as explicit as his remarks.

His theory would not explain why China imposed severe pandemic restrictions after untold numbers of Chinese people died from the virus, including the Wuhan doctor who first alerted the world to it.

One lawmaker, New York Rep. Dan Goldman, noted he was Jewish and also had COVID. Another lawmaker said hate crimes are already on the rise and she fumed Kennedy's comments could fuel them.

"You don't seem to care, or brush it all off to misquotes and misunderstanding," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, said during Thursday's hearing.

"Frankly, it's disgusting."

Laundry hangs from building

There's more. Just last month, Kennedy claimed chemicals in the water turned kids transgender. YouTube pulled down one of his videos for it.

Which brings us to the topic of Thursday's hearing: censorship. It focused on social media companies blocking speech, with encouragement from politicians.

Republicans pointed to several examples in recent years where accurate tweets about COVID were deleted or labelled misinformation.

Kennedy called free speech the secret of American success.

He likened it to the water, fertilizer and sunshine of democracy, and suggested the impulse to ban and block was antithetical to Democrats' traditional values.

"It was appalling to my father, to my uncle, to FDR, to Harry Truman," Kennedy said.

"I've spent my life in this party. I've devoted my life to the values of this party."

A Canadian journalist describes her censoring

He fumed that Democrats' reaction to the hearing illustrated his point: 102 signed a letter calling for Kennedy to be uninvited.

Noting the irony, he said: "This is an attempt to censor a censorship hearing."

As a matter of law, free speech is protected in the U.S., with certain exceptions set by the Supreme Court related to fraud, defamation, campaign speech and certain specific harms.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution binds the government, preventing anti-speech laws and actions. It does not bind social media companies, unless and until the U.S. passes a law clarifying this.

Sometimes, the lines blur.

A Canadian journalist testified at Thursday's hearing, describing how her own work was censored in the runup to the 2020 U.S. election.

Some Republicans alleged social media censorship might have decided the outcome of that vote.

Line of people, with focus on woman in background

Emma-Jo Morris, a Montreal native now working for Breitbart News, was a reporter at the New York Post who broke stories about the Biden family's international business dealings.

The paper ran stories about deals with Ukraine, and China; about Biden allegedly talking business with his son, contrary to what he publicly claimed; and about unproven allegations that Biden, when he was out of politics, may have drawn revenues from his son Hunter's businesses.

For posting this story, the newspaper was locked out of its verified Twitter account. So was the White House press secretary. Sharing the link was forbidden on Facebook, too.

One reason is that former U.S. intelligence officials had suggested the material (drawn from Hunter Biden's laptop) may have been Russian disinformation.

Kennedy, seated, waves paper

GOP wants to redeploy 2016 dirty tricks: Democrats

As she read aloud from reporting published by other media outlets at the time, Morris laughed at the hearing: "God, I can't even say that with a straight face."

Her reporting turned out to be accurate. But by the time other media outlets started covering the story, it was too late to inform voters. "The stakes were nothing. Two years later," Morris said.

Democrats reiterated their main point: this hearing was about nothing more than re-electing Trump to the presidency.

Rep. Stacey Plaskett referred to 2016, when social media sites were awash in hacked and false information; she said Republicans want to recreate that in 2024.

WATCH | Trump says he expects to be charged in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot:

Trump says he expects to be charged in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot

2 days ago

Duration 2:45

Former U.S. president Donald Trump said Tuesday he has received a letter informing him that he is a target of another U.S. Justice Department investigation, an indication he could soon be charged by prosecutors. This investigation is into efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

A U.S. Senate report cited a goal of a Russian disinformation campaign in 2016: to depress Black turnout, and keep African Americans from voting.

Some American conservatives were also convicted of fraud for using phone messages to warn Black Americans against voting.

"I want to be abundantly clear about what else is happening in this room," Plaskett said, accusing Republicans of trying to intimidate social media companies.

"When conspiracy theories succeed, so does Donald Trump. Russia interfered in our 2016 election, they attempted in 2020, and they're going to try to interfere in 2024."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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