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Republicans drill Kavanaugh in mock hearings in preparation for real questioning

The Post's Robert Barnes explains some of the factors that could influence whether Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh is confirmed. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh has already faced off against Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) – or at least a mock version of him. 

In the slew of practice hearings ahead of the real deal, Kavanaugh has practiced how he’ll answer if Durbin presses him about his 2006 testimony in which Kavanaugh said he was not involved in questions about rules governing detention of enemy combatants in the Bush administration. 

For several weeks and hours at a time, Kavanaugh and the officials preparing him have assembled inside a large conference room at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, drilling his answers to that and other pointed questions he will confront at his highly-anticipated confirmation hearings next week. 

Kavanaugh sits behind a desk in the room, set up to resemble the grand Senate hearing room where the nominee will face questions under bright lights and be publicly grilled for two straight days next week. A timer is set. Several administration officials and prominent lawyers enlisted to help Kavanaugh prepare sit before him in a formation shaped like a hearing dais, playing the role of the 21 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

“Everything is set up to mimic what a hearing would look like,” said a White House official who described Kavanaugh’s hearing preparations. 

The official, who spoke anonymously to describe the private sessions, added: “If you were to sit there for the feedback after the first session vs. the most recent, you understand that he has really gotten a command of the facts, his answers. He’s comfortable.”

The hearing preparations are just one part of the White House’s expansive operation to get Kavanaugh confirmed to replace the retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, but one that perhaps has the highest of stakes. Democrats determined to defeat his nomination are preparing an onslaught of difficult questions for Kavanaugh that span the gamut of abortion rights to his views on executive power and various Bush administration controversies. 

All the closely-watched swing votes – Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), as well as Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.) – do not plan to announce their position on Kavanaugh until after the hearings conclude, so a major error could be fatal to his confirmation.  

In turn, several Senate Republicans have offered their help. Among those senators are Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), Rob Portman (Ohio), Dan Sullivan (Alaska) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), who huddled with Kavanaugh last week for their own rapid-fire prep session.

Portman – who has helped past Republican presidential candidates prepare for debates – Sullivan, and Graham have known Kavanaugh since his Bush White House tenure, and Portman will introduce the nominee at his hearing next week. Hatch also had helped Kavanaugh prepare for his confirmation hearing to the D.C. circuit. 

“I’ve told him my view of what to expect,” Graham said in a brief interview last week. “You know, here’s the way the system works, and you’re gonna be asked hard questions, and always give honest answers.”

Hatch, a former Judiciary Committee chairman, was the “chairman” at the two-hour mock hearing held Aug. 20. The senators fired off questions for about two hours, another official familiar with the hearing preparations said, pretending to be different members of the committee as Kavanaugh practiced answering. 

“It’s typically trying to recreate what a hearing setting would be like, trying to divide up the issues,” a third person familiar with the preparations said. “And try to give the nominee a sense of everything that could happen, from outrage to serious legal questions.”

Other senators have sporadically stepped in to help, the White House official said, but a core group of about 15 people or so – split between the White House’s legislative affairs staff, counsel’s office and the Justice Department – have mainly focused on getting Kavanaugh ready. Several of his clerks from his 12-year tenure on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals are also helping Kavanaugh prepare. 

Officials have already gleaned clues into what senators will ask in the dozens of private meetings that Kavanaugh has held with senators since he was nominated in July. In all, Kavanaugh has met with 65 senators, including a few Democrats considered possible “yes” votes and a handful of members of the Judiciary Committee. 

The hearing preparations began several weeks ago – with Kavanaugh poring through stacks of binders filled with papers about case law and other various issues – and have gradually ramped up since. 

They can be grueling. One mock hearing this week went the full length of a day’s worth of questioning, starting at 8:30 a.m. (the real hearings will start at 9:30 a.m. next week) and concluded shortly before 6 p.m., with a few breaks sprinkled throughout the intensive session.

The preparations for next week have spread far beyond the mock hearings. At the Republican National Committee, party officials have coordinated with the White House, as well as Senate Republicans and outside groups working on the confirmation effort and have put together a “war room” to blast out rapid response pieces and other research material during the four days of the hearing next week, according to an RNC official. 

The RNC will also dispatch surrogates to talk to the media in conservative states represented by Democratic senators up for reelection this fall, the official said. 

Aides to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) will run their own rapid response and research operation just outside the committee hearing room next week. 

“Senate Republicans have been working in advance to try and identify attacks and relevant rebuttals to make,” one Senate GOP official said.