Senate Republicans chose Arizona sex crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell to handle their questioning in Thursday’s hearing into Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her. Presumably they thought a professional prosecutor might help cast doubt on Ford’s testimony. If that was their hope, they must be gravely disappointed.
It was odd to choose a sex crimes prosecutor for this role. As a prosecutor, Mitchell’s entire professional career has focused on helping victims of sexual assault tell their stories in a believable and sympathetic way and undermining the credibility of their attackers. Senate Republicans basically asked her to do a complete role reversal. Whether that led to any professional angst for Mitchell, it did not go well.
Ford’s opening statement was devastating, heartbreaking — and completely credible. No attorney would relish the prospect of having to cross-examine such a witness. For Mitchell, it must have been particularly distasteful. She has no doubt put many victims on the stand, had them recount similarly painful and traumatic events and then fought to protect them from the kinds of tactics that she was being asked to employ herself.
Mitchell’s demeanor was appropriate; she was polite, respectful and nonthreatening. You can’t come across like a pit bull trying to destroy a witness who has just delivered such compelling and obviously painful testimony. But surprisingly, early on in the questioning, Mitchell told Ford that she thought Ford had described the assault itself in great detail and didn’t see a need to go over it again.
In other words, in a hearing about a sexual assault, Mitchell took off the table any questioning about the assault itself. Perhaps in light of Ford’s gripping testimony, Mitchell thought that was a good strategic decision. She may have concluded that she could not shake the core of the testimony and that more questioning about the assault would only emphasize the allegations against Kavanaugh while generating more sympathy for Ford. That may be correct as a tactical matter; it’s hard to envision how aggressive probing of the details of the assault would have turned out well for Mitchell.
But as a result, Mitchell’s questions ended up focusing on trivial potential inconsistencies in Ford’s account of peripheral details, such as the distance from her house to the country club she referenced in her allegation or on irrelevant areas such as the location of her polygraph examination (which concluded that she was being truthful). Mitchell asked a few questions about when Ford contacted Congress and who helped her find a lawyer, perhaps trying to imply, however implausibly, that Ford was part of some political conspiracy to take down Kavanaugh. But Mitchell completely failed to shake the heart of Ford’s testimony about the assault — in fact, she didn’t go anywhere near it.
Ford, for her part, came across as careful, trying to be helpful and not seeking to embellish any details. She freely admitted what she does and does not remember and was unwavering in her recollection of the assault itself. It was perfectly clear that she did not want to be there and does not relish her role. Her demeanor and responses to Mitchell’s questions only served to bolster her credibility.
To be fair to Mitchell, she was dealt a pretty tough hand. With a witness so compelling and sympathetic, there may not have been a lot more she could do. She was also hampered by the artificial format in which she was able to ask questions for only five minutes at a time before having to yield to Democratic senators. Even if she had been able to latch onto a productive line of questioning, it’s tough to get into a rhythm when you’re constantly interrupted.
As much as the decision to have Mitchell ask the questions appears to have backfired, it may have been the least-bad option for the Republicans. They avoided the Anita Hill optics of having the victim interrogated by a panel made up only of men. And it’s hard to imagine Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) or Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) effectively questioning Ford about the details of the assault while maintaining the same calm and respectful demeanor. It may well be that the only thing worse for Republicans than having Mitchell do the questioning would have been doing it themselves.
But the bottom line: Mitchell did not lay a glove on Ford. She did nothing to call into question Ford’s courageous description of the assault and statement that she was 100 percent certain Kavanaugh was her attacker. Whatever else comes out of the hearing, it’s going to be difficult for Republicans to ignore her testimony — and impossible for the nation to forget it.