A rare moment of silence befell Washington on Thursday.
Elected officials holed themselves up in their offices to watch a hearing that captivated a nation. President Trump watched riveted and canceled his much-anticipated meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. Like much of the city, he was unwilling to miss the Senate hearing that featured testimony from Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused him of sexual assault while the two were in high school.
Crowds gathered in basement coffee shops around the Capitol, not for source meetings or gossip sessions, but to hold their collective breath and watch as Ford, her voice wavering and cracking with emotion, alleged that Kavanaugh had pinned her down on a bed in the early 1980s and covered her mouth when she tried to shout for help.
Even the most talkative of a talkative bunch didn’t have much to say.
Sen. John Neely Kennedy, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, ambled down a quiet hallway and the media was ready for him.
They stood behind velvet rope, penned off — shoulder-to-shoulder and armpit-to-face — in an otherwise desolate hallway in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
The hearing was in a room nearby. But for the moment, the cameras and microphones were trained on Kennedy, a folksy Louisiana Republican.
He’s the kind of guy who will wonder aloud how his fellow senators managed to have found their way “through the birth canal” and walk reporters through the “gradation of pigs” he uses to categorize sexual harassers (“There are major league pigs, there are minor league pigs. There are amateur pigs. There are first-time pigs. There are experienced pigs. But they’re all pigs.”)
If he’s known at all, it’s not for his influence, but for giving a good quote. Not today.
“Right now,” he said before heading into the hearing room, “I have an open mind and a closed mouth.”
The two witnesses were the voices on display. Ford in the morning. Kavanaugh in the afternoon.
“I am here today not because I want to be,” said Ford, now a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University who said she had never been questioned by a prosecutor before. “I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school.”
Even the anti-Kavanaugh protesters, who lined the stairwells and leaned off the balconies in the Hart Senate Office Building were speechless, participating in a harrowing silent stand-in, their mouths duct-taped closed and “Believe Women” scrawled across their hands.
“The moment of silence comes before the rage,” said Linda Sarsour, there organizing on behalf of the Women’s March. “We want them to be haunted by what they see.”
Everyone was saying they wanted to listen to women. But would they believe what they heard? That, not everyone would say.
Republican after Republican refused to comment for much of the day.
In response to questions: Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) pursed his lips like a concerned duck and sped past reporters, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) turned on his heels and slipped into a secure office, and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) swatted his arm as if he were being pestered by a bug.
“Um,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). “I’m looking forward to listening.”
And they had plenty of time for listening. In an unprecedented move for a collection of men who seem to love nothing more than using every second of their five-minute speaking time, Republicans decided to let someone else do their talking.
“Ms. Mitchell, you have my five minutes to ask questions,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said to Rachel Mitchell, the Arizona sex crimes prosecutor brought in to question Ford.
“Ms. Mitchell, will you proceed for Senator Lee.” “Ms. Mitchell for Senator Graham.” “Ms. Mitchell for Senator Cruz.” “Ms. Mitchell for Senator Sasse.”
Republicans had brought in Mitchell as a way, perhaps, not to draw attention to the fact that they would be a group of men questioning a vulnerable woman. The result may be that they drew attention to being a group of men unwilling to ask any questions of a vulnerable woman.
“I think they look muted,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). It was as if “they wanted” to respond, she continued, but “decided not to do their constitutional duty and participate.”
“It was stunning,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.). “They have as many experienced prosecutors and attorneys over there as we do on our side. For them to be silent and have a hired outsourced prosecutor ask questions for them is surreal.”
Not everyone got the memo to keep mum.
When not handing time over to Mitchell, Grassley spent much of day grousing defensively, as if it were he and his hearing that were on trial. Hatch decided to comment during a break in Ford’s testimony and, after remarking on the witness’s physical appearance, perhaps wishes he hadn’t.
“I don’t think she’s un-credible,” Hatch said about Ford during a break. “I think she’s an attractive, good witness.”
Kavanaugh turned up the decibel level himself, bellowing, “I am innocent of this charge” in an emotional testimony that included tears, discussions of his virginity and drinking games (“You ever played quarters?”).
Graham was even louder than Kavanaugh, and he seemed even angrier.
“I would never do to them what you’ve done to this guy,” he said, nearly leaping out of his chair from behind the dais. “This is one of the most unethical shams I’ve ever seen in politics.”
He continued: “It’s been my understanding if you drug women and rape women in high school, you probably don’t stop.”
There’s more: “This is going to destroy the ability of good people to come forward because of this crap.”
“This is not a job interview,” he said. “This is hell.”
And like that, the moment of silence came to an end.