Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination looks to be in danger now that a woman has publicly accused him of sexually assaulting her when the two were at a high school party decades ago.
That’s not something we were willing to say at the end of last week. Then, the allegation was anonymous, taking shape in a mysterious letter that a top Senate Democrat referred to the FBI, and then in outlines of reporting in the New Yorker that Kavanaugh forced himself on a woman when he was in high school.
That changed Sunday, when Christine Blasey Ford came forward as the accuser, telling The Washington Post’s Emma Brown her story:
One summer in the early 1980s, Kavanaugh and a friend — both “stumbling drunk,” Ford alleges — corralled her into a bedroom during a gathering of teenagers at a house in Montgomery County.
While his friend watched, she said, Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed on her back and groped her over her clothes, grinding his body against hers and clumsily attempting to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she wore over it. When she tried to scream, she said, he put his hand over her mouth.
“I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” said Ford, now a 51-year-old research psychologist in northern California. “He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing.”
As far as tracing decades-old sexual harassment allegations go, Ford’s story is remarkably credible. She is speaking on the record about her experience. She passed a polygraph test, the results of which The Post reviewed. She told other people about the alleged attack years before Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. She allowed her records from a therapy session about the alleged attack to be reviewed by The Post. She says she didn’t want to come forward and decided to do so only after her story was leaked to news outlets.
Ford’s story is enough for at least four Republican senators, Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Susan Collins (Maine), to call for a pause on Kavanaugh’s nomination, which was expected to sail through the Republican-controlled Senate in the next few weeks.
Flake, in particular, is worth watching. He sits on the committee that was expected to vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination this week, and the committee is split just enough that he could stall the vote. (The full Senate could still act without a positive committee vote, but it’d be very controversial.) Collins isn’t on the committee, but even before this allegation emerged, she was considered a critical swing vote on Kavanaugh once his nomination reaches the full Senate. And Blunt is a member of Senate Republican leadership, which is notable.
Kavanaugh has denied the accusation, saying it is “completely false,” a rare full denial in the #MeToo era. But as he and Ford appear headed to litigate this in dueling testimonies before Congress, there are a few reasons this is already particularly damaging to him.
From the moment he became President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Kavanaugh sought to present himself as a champion of women. He introduced himself to the nation by talking about his mom, a teacher-turned-prosecutor-turned-judge. His daughters were by his side. In his confirmation hearing, he and others talked at length about how he elevates women as law clerks. After the allegations surfaced last week, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee shared a letter from 65 women who said they knew Kavanaugh during high school and defended his character.
All this is happening at a moment when the nation is perhaps the most sensitive it has ever been to such allegations, and society is taking them more seriously. Nine members of Congress have lost their jobs over sex-related scandals in the past year. It feels like a long way from 1991, when Anita Hill went through the wringer for testifying that Clarence Thomas, now a Supreme Court justice, had sexually harassed her.
So Kavanaugh’s nomination could be in trouble, even with a Republican Senate that badly wants to put him on the court quickly. But the dam isn’t breaking yet.
A lot is also on the line politically for Republicans, and they’re under a tight timeline. Republicans control a majority in the Senate and, thus, can approve his nomination with a majority of votes. By putting Kavanaugh on the court to replace retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, they can firm up the court’s conservative majority just weeks before the midterm elections, in which their congressional majorities could be at stake.
The longer this nomination is held up, the longer the allegation could simmer, and the more trouble Kavanaugh could be in. It’s likely that starting from scratch wouldn’t get them a nominee on the court before the midterms, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Democrats could take back the Senate in November.
To try to proceed as planned with voting on his nomination this week, Kavanaugh’s supporters are coalescing around a central talking point: why now? A Republican spokesman for the committee questioned the timing of the allegation, saying in a statement: “It raises a lot of questions about Democrats’ tactics and motives to bring this to the rest of the committee’s attention only now rather than during these many steps along the way.”
When Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) shared the letter of Ford’s allegation with the FBI last week, it felt a little like a last-ditch effort by Democrats to do what they could not with votes: derail Kavanaugh’s nomination. Feinstein has said that she was protecting the woman’s request for privacy.
It’s also worth noting that the “Why now?” argument hasn’t proved particularly resonant these days. It’s something Roy Moore tried in a Senate race in Alabama last year after The Post reported on allegations of sexual misconduct against him; he lost what should have been an extremely winnable race for Republicans.
So will Kavanaugh’s nomination be in trouble now that Ford is speaking out? We don’t know. That it’s even a question is a significant turn of events from just a few days ago, before Ford spoke out.
This post has been updated.