Two emotional testimonies. Unequivocal accusations and unequivocal denials. Democrats and Republicans charging the other side of political motivations, and a whole lot of yelling.
The extraordinary hearing in which Christine Blasey Ford accused Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault was both predictable and unpredictable. Here are our takeaways from Thursday’s hearing.
1. This didn’t start off well for Republicans
Before Ford spoke, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, opened the hearing with a list of complaints about the timing of her allegation — specifically how the story broke the same week that the committee was planning to vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination. He ticked off his committee’s failed attempts to corroborate Ford’s allegation. He listed four people the panel interviewed who were alleged to be at the party and said: “All, under penalty of felony, denied the events described.” Grassley was directing most of his ire at Democrats, but cable news split screens showed Grassley questioning Ford’s account and a terrified-looking Ford.
Grassley didn’t mention that Ford told the four people about her allegations before Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court. (That’s a key litmus test that sex-crimes prosecutors use to determine a witness’s credibility.)
If Republicans saw this through a partisan lens, Democrats did their best to frame it that way. Democrats repeatedly mentioned the 1991 Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearing to draw a parallel between Ford and one of the most famous sexual harassment hearings in U.S. history.
There were other reasons it wasn’t a great morning for Kavanaugh backers . . .
2. Meanwhile, Ford came across as credible and sympathetic
Reading her testimony about the alleged attack was compelling. Hearing her describe it was downright gripping. Reporters who were there said all 21 senators were leaning forward on the dais as she spoke, and the room was heavy as she said this:
Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes. He had a hard time, because he was very inebriated, and because I was wearing a one-piece bathing suit underneath my clothing. I believed he was going to rape me.
I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from yelling. This is what terrified me the most, and has had the most lasting impact on my life. It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.
-Christine Blasey Ford
Ford cut a sympathetic figure, and simultaneously rebutted three main arguments against her case:
1. That she and Democrats waited to share her story in an effort to tank Kavanaugh’s nomination: Ford said that she was conflicted about whether to share her secret but that as Kavanaugh’s nomination became more of a certainty, she felt even more obligated to speak out. “I was panicking because I knew the timeline was short about the decision,” she said when prosecutor Rachel Mitchell asked why she had contacted The Washington Post.
2. That she was politically motivated: Ford is a registered Democrat, but she made sure to say this in her opening remarks: “I am an independent person, and I am no one’s pawn."
3. That she isn’t credible because she can’t remember all the details about the party. She said she was “100 percent” certain that Kavanaugh was the one who assaulted her. The research psychologist went into professor mode to explain the chemical process in the brain that captures traumatic experiences: “Basic memory functions,” she said, “and also just the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain. That neurotransmitter encodes memories into the hippocampus. And so the trauma-related experience is locked in there while other details kind of drift.”
Most important for her case, though, Ford came across as a normal, authentic person placed in an unreal situation. Some of the first words she uttered were that she was terrified. She said she had never been questioned by a prosecutor but promised to do her best. She asked a senator what “exculpatory” evidence was. She told Mitchell that she didn’t contact the president because she didn’t know how to do so. Grassley reminded her that she was the one who got to control the committee’s breaks. “I’m used to being collegial,” she said.
3. Republicans' decision to hand their questions over to a female prosecutor seemed questionable
Eleven men questioning a woman whom many in their party have already discredited is not a good look, and the Republicans on the committee recognized that. So they hired Rachel Mitchell, an experienced sex-crimes prosecutor from Arizona, to question Ford for them. Mitchell kept her voice even, asked strictly legal questions about the timeline in Ford’s story and even, at times, sympathized with Ford. “The first thing that struck me from your statement this morning was that you are terrified, and I just wanted to let you know I’m very sorry. That’s not right,” Mitchell said.
But as Mitchell did her job, Republicans' reluctance to question Ford themselves grew more conspicuous. That was especially the case when compared with Democrats taking their turns to praise Ford and bash Republicans for not allowing the FBI to investigate her claims or to call key witnesses, such as Kavanaugh friend Mark Judge or the person who administered Ford’s polygraph test.
The whipsaw from Democrats making political points to a prosecutor producing maps and summaries of polygraph tests made for a disjointed, awkward presentation. Was this a trial? A committee hearing? A spectacle? It felt like all three rolled into one, which is certainly not what Republicans who set up the hearing were going for.
As Ford’s turn on the witness stand wrapped up, neither side had managed to prove or disprove much. Ford stayed consistent to her claim that Kavanaugh assaulted her, and Democrats stayed consistent that they believe her. And Republicans were left silent, their earlier questioning of Ford’s credibility echoing loudly.
4. Kavanaugh was angry. But did his defiance backfire?
Under oath, Kavanaugh offered an unequivocal denial that he sexually assaulted Ford: “I swear today, under oath, before the Senate and the nation, before my family and God, I am innocent of this charge."
But his emotions often overshadowed the content of his remarks.
In an opening statement that ran more than 40 minutes, Kavanaugh threw out his carefully crafted persona as a nonpartisan judge to defend himself. He at times both shouted and cried as he described the impact the allegations have had on him and his family. He repeatedly attacked Democrats, even accusing them of ruining his life with the timing of the allegations and the scrutiny and accusations that followed.
“I love teaching law,” he said. “But thanks to what some of you on this side of the committee have unleashed, I may never teach again.”
“I love coaching more than anything I’ve ever done in my whole life,” he said. “But thanks to what some of you on this side of the committee have unleashed, I may never be able to coach again.”
Kavanaugh was center stage in a national debate about how powerful men treat women. Compared with Ford’s emotional but soft-spoken testimony, it wasn’t clear how his emotional and angry defense would come across. At least one viewer approved.
5. Kavanaugh may have done what he needed to do for the most important people in the room
Kavanaugh denied he had sexual relations with Ford and testified he was never even alone in a room with Ford and Judge. He went so far as to reiterate that he was a virgin in high school, something he said he was privately proud of. He walked through his high school calendar in detail to try to argue that there’s no way he could have been at such a gathering because he was out of town so much.
His performance was enough for most Republican lawmakers on the committee, who one by one threw away the notion of having a sex-crimes prosecutor question him and used their five minutes to defend Kavanaugh. None did that more passionately than Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who made clear last week that he was going to vote for him. “This is going to destroy the good people coming forward because of this crap,” he yelled.
So Kavanaugh seems to have the support of most of the Republican senators in that committee room who will first vote on his nomination, save Sen Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a swing vote who didn’t let on what he was thinking. And did he win over the ones outside the room — swing votes such as Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and the American public?