The country is gearing up to watch Supreme Court Brett M. Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school, testify under oath this morning in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. While it promises to be a spectacle no matter what, here are seven things to keep your eye on.
“Credible” is subjective. Just among the 51 Republican senators who will likely decide whether Kavanaugh is a Supreme Court justice, there is wide range of willingness to believe or even consider Ford’s story. Some senators have questioned why she can’t remember every detail of the party at which she alleges the incident occurred and others, like Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), are warning their party to take her allegation very seriously.
It’s noteworthy that despite some eyebrow-raising efforts by Kavanaugh allies to discredit Ford’s story, she arrives Thursday with it intact.
But a decades-old allegation will probably never be completely proven false or true. So Ford must do her best to convey sincerity and a lack of a political agenda to back up her words. How well she does that could make or break her believability.
Republicans’ hope is that with one hearing, they can accomplish two tricky things: coming across as genuinely open to hearing what Ford has to say, and ensuring that Kavanaugh clears his name, at least enough to persuade 51 senators to vote for him.
Kavanaugh also must address two other accusations he’s technically not testifying about: A Yale University classmate, Deborah Ramirez, claims he stuck his genitalia in her face. Julie Swetnick claims she was a victim of a “gang” rape at a house party where Kavanaugh was present in their high school days.
Kavanaugh has denied all the accusations. But their mere existence means Kavanaugh is now being depicted as a party boy who doesn’t respect women. Does he answer questions about his sexual proclivities and drinking habits under oath on national TV without getting defensive or missing the mark?
Kavanaugh and Ford are playing to a national audience, but they’re also speaking to an audience of one in Thursday’s hearing: Jeff Flake. He’s a Republican from Arizona who is one of the swing votes on Kavanaugh. The other Republican senators who might vote against Kavanaugh — Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Murkowski — aren’t on the committee.
Two defections by Republican senators could break Kavanaugh’s nomination (if no Democrats vote for him), and Flake will be our test-case for how other undecided Republican senators are reacting to Thursday’s hearing as they watch it on TV like the rest of us.
According to The Washington Post’s Paul Kane, Congress hasn’t called in an outside lawyer to do their questioning for them since the impeachment hearings for Bill Clinton in 1998.
And that situation was nothing like what we’re about to see Thursday. The 11 Senate Republicans on the committee are all men, which is the sole reason they are passing on their questions to an outside attorney, Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell. They want to avoid even the appearance they don’t take Ford seriously, which would be a Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill redux. The optics of that hearing still haunt the senators who were part of that Supreme Court confirmation process.
Does Republicans’ unusual strategy come across the way they want, or does it backfire in some way?
Republicans are not off to a great start.
Ford says there was an eyewitness to her attack, and yet Republicans aren’t calling Mark Judge to testify, which makes little sense if their goal is to get the truth.
And in the background of this hearing, you have the top Senate Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), saying basically everything he can to derail committee Republicans’ efforts to appear nonpartisan. He promised social conservatives on Friday that Kavanaugh “will be on the U.S. Supreme Court.” He derided the allegations against Kavanaugh as a “smear campaign” by Democrats rather than leaving open the possibility these women spoke up of their own accord. And he referred to the sex-crimes prosecutor doing Republicans’ questioning as a “female assistant.” She heads the special victims division for Maricopa County’s attorney’s office in Arizona and has two and a half decades experience prosecuting crimes like this.
Democrats are in danger of overreaching, too.
The last time Kavanaugh testified before this committee, some Senate Democrats asked prosecutorial, confrontational questions that teased some kind of wrongdoing by Kavanaugh without providing any evidence. Their efforts fell flat. Now, senators like Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) could play right into Republican arguments that Democrats are using these accusations to take down Kavanaugh. That would undermine Democrats’ efforts appear like they are the ones taking the matter seriously.
As The Fix’s Eugene Scott details, the way Hill was treated in the Thomas-Hill hearings inspired women to jump into politics at unprecedented levels.
There’s already evidence the Trump era is motivating women to do the same thing, with record number of women running for office at nearly every level in the 2018 elections. Most of that energy has been concentrated on the left, and Democratic operatives have wondered if that momentum will last beyond November.
These kinds of hearings don’t fade from the public memory quickly. A key figure in the Thomas-Hill hearing is still living under its shadow. “I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill,” former vice president Joe Biden, who chaired the committee at the time, recently said. “I owe her an apology.”
There are plenty of members on the committee Thursday with bigger political ambitions: Harris, Booker and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) are all potential 2020 challengers to Trump. How they handle this could make or break those ambitions.