The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

7 things to watch for in Thursday’s Brett Kavanaugh hearing

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing earlier this month. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

There aren’t enough adjectives to convey what a spectacle the appearance Thursday at the Senate Judiciary Committee of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh and his first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, will be.

So how do we assess what mark it will leave on Kavanaugh’s nomination, on Republicans, on Democrats, on President Trump and on the state of U.S. politics? Here are seven things I’ll be watching for during Thursday’s hearing that could shed light on those.

1. How credible is Ford? And how do you measure credibility?

"Credible” is subjective. Just among the 51 Republican senators who will probably 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, such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), are warning their party to take Ford’s allegation very seriously.

It’s noteworthy that despite 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 proved 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.

2. How well does Kavanaugh rebut the accusations against him?

Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh sat down for his first TV interview since facing allegations of sexual misconduct. Here are some highlights. (Video: Melissa Macaya/The Washington Post)

Republicans hope that with one hearing, they can accomplish two tricky things:

  1. Come across as genuinely open to hearing what Ford has to say.
  2. Ensure that Kavanaugh clears his name, at least enough to persuade 51 senators to vote for him to be the next Supreme Court justice.

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 when they were freshmen. Julie Swetnick claims she was a victim of a “gang” rape at a house party where Kavanaugh was present in their high school days in Montgomery County, Md.

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?

'I have never sexually assaulted anyone': Brett Kavanaugh's testimony to Congress, annotated

3. How does Jeff Flake react?

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) spoke on Sept. 26 about Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her. (Video: U.S. Senate)

Kavanaugh and Ford are playing to a national audience, but they’re also speaking to an audience of one in Thursday’s hearing: Sen. 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.

4. How weird will it be to have a female prosecutor ask questions for the Republican men on the committee?

It’s certainly unusual. According to The Washington Post’s Paul Kane, Congress hasn’t called in an outside lawyer to do the questioning since the impeachment hearings for President Bill Clinton in 1998.

And that situation was nothing like what we’re about to see Thursday. The 11 Senate Republicans on the Judiciary 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?

5. Do Republicans make the case that they can handle this without the FBI?

They're 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, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), saying basically everything he can to derail committee Republicans' efforts to appear nonpartisan. He promised social conservatives 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.

Top Senate Republicans aren't even trying to pretend Kavanaugh's accuser will make a difference

6. Do Democrats on the committee come across as overly aggressive and partisan?

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 such as Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) could play right into Republican arguments that Democrats are using these accusations to take down Kavanaugh. That would undermine Democrats' efforts to appear as the ones taking the matter seriously.

7. How is this hearing remembered?

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 numbers 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 whether 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.