Whatever anyone intended, Thursday’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee devolved into the worst of Washington. It was a partisan brawl on steroids that will leave the country more deeply divided than before. It ended as many had feared it would, a she-said, he-said moment that left senators with no easy out on the question of whether to confirm Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
The day started quietly enough, as Christine Blasey Ford took the witness stand to assert that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her 36 years ago when both were teenagers in the Washington suburbs. By the afternoon, after Ford had departed and Kavanaugh had delivered an indignant and sometimes tearful opening statement, it devolved into angry finger-pointing, with Republicans accusing Democrats of character assassination for partisan reasons.
At some point soon, Kavanaugh’s fate will be decided. He will either become a member of the Supreme Court or he will not. But the process by which that fate is ultimately determined is likely to leave a stain on Washington, reminding the country that, for now, the confirmation of justices for the high court is in the grip of the same partisan political climate that cuts across almost everything in public life.
Ford proved to be a powerful witness, coolly determined both to demonstrate her credibility as an accuser and to dismiss assertions that she had come forward because of political or partisan motivations. Kavanaugh brought a totally different demeanor to the hearing room, hot and emotional. He came to salvage a reputation that he said had been destroyed by several accusations. But he also came to charge that he was the victim of a vicious attack by Democrats and their allies who were willing to do anything to bring him down.
By her own admission, Ford was terrified to be where she was, at the center of one of the most supercharged Supreme Court nomination battles in history. But if she was terrified, she was also unshakable. Washington is a city of prepared sound bites, focus-grouped and poll-tested language and the posturing of the highest order. On Thursday, Ford provided a reminder that there is another model: the strength of straightforward testimony, calmly delivered and yet emotionally powerful.
No one knew what to expect of her, but if Republicans thought her version of events would come apart under close examination, she proved them wrong. Through hours of questioning by Rachel Mitchell, an Arizona prosecutor hired by the all-male Republican majority on the committee to do what they normally do, she showed herself to be credible, careful, open and, in the end, most human. She was what the politicians claim they are all seeking: She was authentic.
Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, all the analogies were to a possible repeat of the bickering and backbiting that took place 27 years ago in a similar setting, when Anita Hill testified against now-Justice Clarence Thomas in what became one of the most raucous Supreme Court confirmations in memory. At those hearings, Republicans openly sought to demolish Hill’s credibility and in the end, though she was a credible witness, Thomas was narrowly confirmed.
Ford arrived for her testimony at a moment far removed in at least one important way from the world of 1991, a moment in which the #MeToo movement has altered the way women are heard when they speak out about sexual assault or harassment. Republicans knew they could not do to Ford what had been done to Hill. Those in the hearing room hushed to hear what she had to say and, around the country, Americans stopped to listen.
Ford has many believers, though she cannot prove to the satisfaction of everyone that Kavanaugh had done what she said. There are gaps in her memory and denials from others she had placed at the scene of the party in summer 1982. But in acknowledging what she could not remember, her statement that she was “100 percent” certain that it was Kavanaugh and not someone else who had pinned her to a bed, covered her mouth and tried to remove her clothes echoed powerfully through the hearing room.
For his part, Kavanaugh repeatedly cited those who had taken issue with details of Ford’s assertion. Not only were her charges uncorroborated, he said, but they had been refuted. But when pressed by Democrats, who asked him to call for an FBI investigation that would seek testimony from all accusers and all potential witnesses, particularly his high school friend Mark Judge, he demurred, tossing the issue back on the divided committee.
The overall strength of Ford’s testimony was clear from the reactions of partisans across the political spectrum, with many conservatives remarking on her effectiveness as a witness and raising questions about whether Kavanaugh could muster the votes needed for confirmation. From the White House, where President Trump was monitoring the hearings, there were no immediate signals.
As a result, Kavanaugh came to his critical moment in the afternoon under enormous pressure. His earlier testimony before the committee, before any of the allegations of sexual misconduct had been raised, was judged as mixed. His interview with Martha MacCallum of Fox News on Monday raised concerns among his Republican allies that he had been too scripted and not forceful enough in his rebuttals.
Given all that, he took what may have been the only strategy possible, which was to fight back as hard as he could, beginning with his opening statement. His personal anguish was evident, as he struggled to compose himself repeatedly, especially when talking about his family. He could see the damage that had been done to him, and the emotional toll the process has taken on his family also was clear in the expressions on the face of his wife, Ashley, seated behind him.
But it was the other part of his testimony that turned the battle back into raw partisanship. He said there had been a frenzy on the left to block his nomination from the very start and that when it appeared that the effort was failing, Democrats had unleashed “grotesque and coordinated character assassination” against him.
“This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election,” he said. “Fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record. Revenge on behalf of the Clintons. And millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.”
Trump immediately signaled his support for his nominee. Whether Kavanaugh did enough to solidify enough Republicans to guarantee his confirmation also will be known soon. There will be doubts no matter the outcome, questions that have not been resolved, broader issues of the treatment of women still up for debate and partisanship in the saddle. In that sense, Thursday ended as it began.