When a California Democrat in Congress recently engaged in an extended conversation with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, they prepared for a rigorous policy discussion like those they’d had with her many times over the last 15 years.
Instead, the lawmaker said, they had to reintroduce themselves to Feinstein multiple times during an interaction that lasted several hours.
Rather than delve into policy, Feinstein, 88, repeated the same small-talk questions, like asking the lawmaker what mattered to voters in their district, the member of Congress said, with no apparent recognition the two had already had a similar conversation.
The episode was so unnerving that the lawmaker — who spoke to The Chronicle on condition they not be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic — began raising concerns with colleagues to see if some kind of intervention to persuade Feinstein to retire was possible. Feinstein’s term runs through the end of 2024. The conversation occurred several weeks before the death of her husband in February.
“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 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.”
Four U.S. senators, including three Democrats, as well as three former Feinstein staffers and the California Democratic member of Congress said in recent interviews that her memory is rapidly deteriorating. They said it appears she can no longer fulfill her job duties without her staff doing much of the work required to represent the nearly 40 million people of California.
They said that the memory lapses do not appear to be constant and that some days she is nearly as sharp as she used to be. During the March confirmation hearing for soon-to-be-Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Feinstein appeared composed as she read pertinent questions, though she repeated comments to Jackson about the judge’s composure in the face of tough questioning. But some close to her said that on her most difficult days, she does not seem to fully recognize even longtime colleagues.
“It’s bad, and it’s getting worse,” said one Democratic senator. This person said that within the Senate, Feinstein has difficulty keeping up with conversations and discussions.
“There’s a joke on the Hill, we’ve got a great junior senator in Alex Padilla and an experienced staff in Feinstein’s office,” said a staffer for a California Democrat.
All of those who expressed concerns about Feinstein’s acuity said that doing so was painful because of their respect for the senator and her groundbreaking career. Each spoke on condition of anonymity, because they said they did not want to jeopardize their relationship with her and their mutual friends and colleagues.
They spoke before Feinstein’s husband, financier Richard Blum, who had been in very ill health as he battled cancer, died. They said they were also sensitive to what Feinstein was going through.
The former staff members requested anonymity in part out of respect to Feinstein and because of restrictions imposed by their current jobs.
The Chronicle agreed to protect each of these people’s anonymity, in accordance with the newspaper’s policy on confidential sources, due to the importance of Feinstein’s ability to govern.
In a statement provided March 28, Feinstein said she’s still performing her job well. She declined to be interviewed.
“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,” she said. “But there’s no question I’m still serving and delivering for the people of California, and I’ll put my record up against anyone’s.”
Other lawmakers defended Feinstein’s abilities in on-the-record interviews, noting that she asks pertinent questions in committee hearings, votes as needed, and oversees an office that is still a strong player on legislation and constituent services.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine volunteered that after a recent snowstorm caused a traffic backup that resulted in him being stuck in his car for 27 hours commuting to D.C., Feinstein handwrote him a letter expressing how sorry she was for what he had experienced.
Some of these people bristle at singling out Feinstein, when congressional history is filled with aging male politicians who remained in office despite their declining state.
Padilla has known Feinstein since the mid-1990s, when he worked for her briefly. “I’ve heard some of the same concerns,” Padilla said, “but 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.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she had not noticed a decline in Feinstein’s memory and noted her work on the recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and the Supreme Court confirmation.
“Senator Feinstein is a workhorse for the people of California and a respected leader among her colleagues in the Senate,” Pelosi said. “She is constantly traveling between California and the Capitol, working relentlessly to ensure Californians’ needs are met and voices are heard.”
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.”
But the new details about Feinstein’s condition raise questions about where a line should be drawn in a legislative body with no age or term limits.
Other than resignation, death or the end of a term, there is only one way to remove senators from office: a two-thirds vote of their peers. The Senate has expelled 15 members since 1789 — one for treason and 14 for supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War. A handful of other expulsions have been explored, usually for corruption, but in each case the lawmaker left office before a vote.
Adding urgency to the recent concerns: If Democrats retain control of the Senate next year, Feinstein will succeed retiring Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy as the Senate’s president pro tem — putting her third in line for the presidency. Feinstein has filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission that would allow her to run in 2024, a formality that lets her keep her fundraising accounts active, though she has not yet declared whether she intends to run.
Still, there’s a sense of resignation about the situation amid the sadness and frustration, as discussions about how to persuade Feinstein to step aside have yet to produce any results.
“It shouldn’t end this way for her. She deserves better,” said the California Democratic member of Congress. “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.”
Concerns about Feinstein’s ability to hold her job have followed her for years and intensified in 2020 when a series of accounts circulated about her performance. The attention two years ago was focused around the possibility that she would become chair of the Judiciary Committee under President Biden.
She defended her abilities at the time. “I don’t feel my cognitive abilities have diminished,” she told the Los Angeles Times in December 2020. “Do I forget something sometimes? Quite possibly.”
She had been responding to a December 2020 New Yorker story that reported Feinstein was “seriously struggling” with memory loss. The article said Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had to tell Feinstein more than once that she needed to give up the Judiciary Committee leadership post because she didn’t remember he had already told her.
A month prior, she repeated a question to a witness, word for word, in a hearing with seemingly no awareness of having done so, and she shocked colleagues at the end of the contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Amy Coney Barrett by unexpectedly praising Republicans for having conducted a great process.
“This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in,” Feinstein told the Republican chair of the committee. “I want to thank you for your fairness.”
Since then, the situation has seemingly worsened, the lawmakers and former aides said. Even those who consider themselves among Feinstein’s closest allies worry her health and memory struggles will rapidly deteriorate or cause public embarrassment.
She rarely engages with the public outside her official duties as a member of Senate committees, including the Senate Intelligence Committee, which handles sensitive national intelligence, nor does she do extended sit-down interviews with the media. She does field questions from the press in the Senate hallways, but often responds by saying she doesn’t know enough to comment or gives nonspecific responses.
Feinstein has not had a town hall since 2017, according to the congressional tracker LegiStorm, and has not held any local events this year. Her office said she has attended numerous public events since that town hall, however, and attributed her lack of events in 2022 to her husband’s passing and the pandemic. Every other member of the Bay Area congressional delegation has held at least two town halls and/or local events this year, and several have done far more.
By contrast, Padilla, who is up for re-election this year, participated in 18 public town halls in 2021, according to his staff. He did 250 media interviews. In the past two months, he has held two town halls in February, two events in Sacramento and two in San Francisco.
Feinstein’s reduced public profile and recent scrutiny may be hurting her popularity. A March survey from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that 36% of likely voters approved of the way she was doing her job, down from 44% a year ago — and lower than Padilla’s 39% approval mark.
A Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and Los Angeles Times poll released Feb. 16 found that 9% of California voters strongly approved of her job performance, and an additional 21% somewhat approved. The surveys represented a steep decline from 2005, when a Field Poll found that 54% of voters approved of her job performance, and 26% disapproved.
Though Feinstein’s actions in public have been closely watched since 2020, the scripted nature of the Senate — as well as pandemic restrictions and her limited public schedule — have provided fewer instances in which she is subject to scrutiny.
But there are signs of her struggles. Feinstein has at least one staff member with her at essentially all times in the Capitol. And staff members guide the senator to an extent far beyond her colleagues.
On Jan. 20, the Judiciary Committee voted on an antitrust bill that would bar giant tech platforms like Google and Amazon from favoring their own products over third parties on their sites. Feinstein delivered a statement critical of the bill and expressed concerns about its targeting of California-based companies like Google, putting her at odds with most Democrats on the committee. The discussion of the bill and debate over its amendments lasted 2½ hours.
Feinstein struggled when pressed by Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the bill’s author. Klobuchar asked Feinstein about a line in her remarks asserting that government agencies opposed the bill.
“Are you implying, Sen. Feinstein, that the U.S. government, that the administration is against this bill?” Klobuchar interjected.
“I do not know. What I said is, ‘I am told that federal agencies have concerns about this bill,’” Feinstein said.
Twelve days later, on Feb. 1, The Chronicle asked Feinstein as she walked through the Capitol to explain her views on the bill.
“I just don’t know what it does, candidly,” Feinstein said. “I have to look at it. What antitrust legislation are you talking about, what bill?”
When The Chronicle specified it was the bill the committee had marked up two weeks prior, Feinstein gestured toward her staff member and indicated he would follow up on it: “Let me look at it, and then we’ll talk.”
During that Jan. 20 hearing, and during a Feb. 3 hearing for a similar bill to loosen phone makers’ control over app purchases, a staff member hovered at Feinstein’s right hand during every roll call, sitting down once she had cast her vote. Several times, the staff member engaged in lengthy conversation with Feinstein.
It’s not uncommon for senators to confer with staff during hearings or to read prepared statements and questions. But few if any senators appear as reliant on staff input as they move around the Capitol.
In December, Feinstein missed a hearing for a California judicial nominee and instead submitted a written statement, an unusual move for a home-state senator. Though she missed some time in Washington due to the ill health of her husband, Feinstein was present in the Senate that day, according to voting records. Her office did not explain the absence in response to Chronicle inquiries.
The episodes of the politician struggling to keep up with Senate business stand in sharp contrast with the Feinstein of years ago. In 2013, on the same Judiciary Committee, she sparred with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas on his criticism of her landmark legislation to ban assault weapons, responding off the cuff and chiding him for implying she didn’t know constitutional law. “I’m not a sixth-grader,” she admonished.
But Wednesday, two senators who have served with Feinstein for years said they believe she does not always fully recognize them. They said they get the sense that Feinstein realizes she knows them but isn’t able to quickly recall their name or home state. One Senate staffer said they’ve seen their boss on a few occasions greet Feinstein in hallways with a preemptive self-introduction.
Staff turnover has increased in her office in recent years, with more departures from her office each year since 2017, according to the congressional tracking service LegiStorm.
One top Democratic fundraiser who lives in the Bay Area said Feinstein’s fundraising operation has virtually shut down. She raised $5,566 last year, according to campaign filings, an extremely small amount for such a prominent politician. Powerful lawmakers often fundraise for the benefit of the party and their colleagues, even if they do not plan to run again. The 82-year-old Leahy, who is retiring this year, raised $1 million over a similar period.
Several people were alarmed by Feinstein’s performance at the memorial service last June for former Port of San Francisco Commissioner Anne Halsted, the first woman to serve on the city’s Port Commission, whom the senator had known for decades.
Feinstein didn’t mention Halsted in her initial remarks, but offered generic comments about San Francisco and gave shout-outs to people in the audience, including Pelosi, whom Feinstein described as “the Democratic leader in the United States Senate.” Moments later, Feinstein backtracked, joking to Pelosi, “Nancy, I promoted you to the Senate,” in a moment captured on video footage obtained by The Chronicle. The audience laughed.
Some were uncomfortable with what they saw. After Feinstein sat down, “and it was clear that she hadn’t said anything about Anne, there was a ripple through the crowd,” said one person in the audience who has known Feinstein for decades and was granted anonymity to be able to speak freely about the incident because they continue to work with Bay Area officials.
Feinstein later returned to the podium and spoke about Halsted, and said she was told by her staff that she needed to speak again. She spoke about Halsted in present tense, according to another video provided to The Chronicle.
“It was quite disconcerting,” said the person who attended the event. “It’s clear that she’s really over the line.”
Though the Senate runs on a lot of staff work, the former staffers for Feinstein described an environment in which it was challenging to get things done due to her frequent inability to recall previous conversations or follow complicated discussions.
One former staffer said they would have conversations about sending a letter out, and the next day Feinstein would not remember the conversation.
In one instance, the former staffer recalled, they wanted Feinstein to sign off on something that would have advanced an important investigation. But Feinstein repeatedly said she could not understand why the investigative step was necessary, an explanation the staffer said they felt was a result of Feinstein not being able to follow the thread of the investigation.
“It’s really hard to have a micromanager who is not fully remembering everything that we’ve talked about,” the staffer said. “My biggest concern is that it’s a real disservice to the people of California.”
The lawmaker who had the hours-long interaction with Feinstein referenced a classic fable in which people are afraid to speak the truth to a powerful leader: “We’ve got an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ problem here.”
Reporting from The San Francisco Chronicle.