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Chuck Grassley’s heavy-handed stewardship of a very delicate hearing

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) on Sept. 27 apologized to Christine Blasey Ford and to Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh for threats they endured. (Video: Reuters)

Republicans went to great lengths to avoid questioning Christine Blasey Ford themselves, knowing that the optics of 11 white men dissecting her account and pushing back on her claims could be bad. One need only review the tapes of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearing to understand how that can go awry.

But one of them couldn’t avoid being involved: Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), who chairs the committee and must preside over the hearing.

Overall, it hasn’t been great. In direct interactions with Ford, Grassley was polite and even solicitous, reassuring her that she could ask for breaks and clarifications as needed. But it was his other interactions that set the tone.

Rather than being cautious and measured and avoiding overreach, Grassley has set about controlling the hearing and even hitting back at Democrats in ways that occasionally seemed unhelpful.

Even before Ford was allowed to deliver her powerful and emotional opening statement, Grassley ran through complaints about how Democrats and her legal team have handled the process. After apologizing to both Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh for the things they have been subjected to in the past two weeks, Grassley placed the hearing in a partisan context. He repeatedly described Ford’s letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, as “secret,” suggesting that it was nefariously hidden rather than a symptom of Ford’s desire not to come forward at that point.

“Some of my colleagues, consistent with their stated desires to obstruct Kavanaugh’s nomination by any means precisely — by any means necessary, pushed for FBI investigations into the allegations,” Grassley said. He added that the hearing would be “in stark contrast to the grandstanding and chaos that we saw from the other side during the previous four days in this hearing process.”

Feinstein spoke next, and she quickly noted that Grassley had not introduced the witness — despite having introduced the outside GOP counsel questioning her, Rachel Mitchell — and said she would do it for him.

Grassley assured her that he just hadn’t gotten around to it:

FEINSTEIN: Before you get to your testimony — and the chairman chose not to do this — I think it’s important to make sure you’re properly introduced. And I have to...
GRASSLEY: By the way, I was going to introduce her. But if you want to introduce her, I’ll be glad to have you do that. But I want you to know, I didn’t forget to do it, because I would do that just as she was about to speak.
FEINSTEIN: Thank you.

Feinstein then brought up Kavanaugh’s two other named accusers, to which Grassley took exception.

“I’m sorry you brought up about the unsubstantiated allegations of other people, because we’re here for the sole purpose of listening to Dr. Ford. And we’ll consider other issues other times,” he noted before swearing in Ford.

When the questioning began, Mitchell had barely scratched the surface (at that point, during time allotted to Grassley) when Grassley announced that her five minutes were up. Ford had been offering some clarifications of her previous accounts, but Grassley elected to hand the questioning over to the Democrats mid-answer.

He would continue to insist upon the five-minute rule, which is generally enforced at the discretion of the chairman. Even some Republicans favorable to Kavanaugh decried the process:

As the hearing went on, female Democratic senators, including, Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), raised objections about how Grassley was handling the hearing and information that wasn’t being provided to them. Grassley largely brushed off their complaints and tried to charge forward.

At one point during Klobuchar’s questioning, he cut off her and said, “Can we hear from Dr. Ford?” Near the end of their exchange about entering polygraph results into the record, he told Klobuchar: “You got what you wanted. You’d think you’d be satisfied.”

By very early in the process, Grassley had already clashed with three of the committee’s four female Democratic senators. Democrats clearly had a strategy, and Grassley was playing into it.

But it wasn’t just the women. Before the first recess, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) accused the GOP of “obstructing” the proceedings, and Grassley took exception, issuing a brief but fiery retort.

Grassley is in a tough spot, as then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden (D-Del.) could tell you of his time leading the Thomas hearings. He needs to be sensitive to Ford, but Republicans can’t let Democrats just walk all over them and control everything. Someone needs to stand up for the process the GOP has chosen, and Mitchell and the other GOP senators can’t do it.

But at times it also appeared as though Grassley was taking things very personally — as one might, given that he has presided over the entire process — and wasn’t as wary of the potentially bad optics as he perhaps should have been.