For almost seven hours Republicans sat silent, allowing an outside counsel to ask questions out of fear that they would look angry and insensitive toward a woman accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault decades ago.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) changed all that late Thursday afternoon. Waving his arms and pointing fingers at Democrats, Graham accused them of a character assassination of Kavanaugh.
“I hope the American people will see through this charade,” Graham said, shouting over and over again.
From that point on, Republicans let it rip, roaring about Democrats and expressing sympathy for Kavanaugh after his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, fielded inquiries from the outside counsel about her allegations that Kavanaugh assaulted her when they were in high school.
The audible occurred after Republicans decided that the original procedure had not gone well for them, that Ford early in the day came across as an authentic witness and that the GOP was losing the battle anyway. After Kavanaugh came to the witness table around 3 p.m. Thursday, delivering an enraged 45-minute statement attacking the Democrats, Republicans decided to follow suit.
The move in many ways mirrored the way Donald Trump and some GOP candidates have proceeded in their campaigns. Rather than try to persuade those in the middle, Trump has repeatedly sought to gin up conservative-base voters through an intemperate style that resonates with activists on the right.
One by one Republicans raised their voices, blasting the Democrats and questioning the corroboration of Ford’s testimony.
“This is a national disgrace!” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) shouted after 5 p.m.
It marked a complete reversal from the first half of the hearing, when Republicans sat silent and allowed Rachel Mitchell, a sex-crimes prosecutor from Arizona, to politely ask Ford questions. But outside the hearings Republicans went to the TV cameras and media, giving answers that sounded insensitive anyway.
Hatch, in the span of a few minutes, summed up the early portion of the GOP strategy going into hearings. “We think the more we stay out of it, the better,” Hatch told reporters at midday.
A few minutes earlier, Hatch, the most senior Republican, had summed up Ford’s first wave of testimony about her allegations in an awkward fashion: “I’ll say this — she’s attractive and she’s a nice person.”
His aides would later clarify that the 84-year-old calls many people attractive, but Hatch had proved his own point: He waded into things and it got more difficult, forcing staffers to try to explain that he wasn’t being sexist.
To that point the Republicans had almost entirely been represented by the occasional interjections from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the Judiciary Committee chairman known for his cranky temperament and Midwestern twang.
In fact, it took more than an hour and 50 minutes for any other Republican to say a word in the hearing, when Graham raised an inquiry about Democratic efforts to admit Ford’s lie-detector test into testimony.
Ford impressed even Republicans in that format.
“It’s riveting, really, and that’s all I’m going to say. It’s very compelling and emotional for her obviously, and I think anybody who’s watching it’s got to feel the same way,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who watched the hearings on TV, told reporters at lunchtime.
GOP committee members thought the format worked against them, particularly because Mitchell had only five minutes to develop a line of questioning before yielding to a Democrat on the panel.
“It’s not great,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said during the lunchtime break. “What would be better is if you had [the ability] to develop the evidence through continuous questioning over a period of time.”
As Hatch had noted, Republicans feared the optics of an all-male rotation of GOP committee members asking a woman about an alleged sexual assault. The image was seared, of course, at the 1991 hearings in which then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas faced sexual harassment allegations from his former employee Anita Hill.
Hill faced a blistering set of questions in nationally televised hearings, sparking liberal energy heading into the 1992 elections, in which female candidates won campaigns at historic levels to that point — 1992 was dubbed the “Year of the Woman.”
Once Ford’s allegations landed in The Washington Post, some Republicans urged a pause in consideration of Kavanaugh and asked for a hearing with both witnesses.
So Grassley decided to temporarily hire Mitchell, believing it would spare Republicans from a replay of the Hill questioning.
“The effort was not to make it a circus atmosphere,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told reporters Thursday.
Grassley, known inside the Capitol for his quirky, sometimes shouting manner, served as the only Republican spokesman inside the hearing room until the late-afternoon shift. Anyone tuning in for the first time might have wondered who the 85-year-old was cutting off Democrats.
Otherwise, Republicans deferred to the soothing manner of Mitchell, an experienced prosecutor who simply tried to draw out facts from Ford and, later, Kavanaugh.
“The five-minute intervals are not great, but it’s what we’re stuck with,” Cornyn said at midday.
Four hours later Republicans ripped up the playbook and went straight for the jugular, setting aside any fear of looking angry. Ford was long done with her testimony anyway, so Republicans just shouted at Democrats and defended Kavanaugh.
After the hearing Cornyn would observe, “Frankly, I think there was some frustration among the senators that they thought there were arguments that needed to be made, that she frankly was not equipped to make.”
The Republicans accused Democrats of leaking the contents of Ford’s private letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, an accusation Feinstein vehemently denied.
They followed the lead of Kavanaugh, who at times interrupted Democrats and asked them whether they had misbehaved themselves.
The decorum from the early part of the day had disappeared.
The only Republican to avoid the confrontational style was Flake, the second to last questioner and believed to be a wavering vote. He did not ask a question, just lectured his colleagues that their tone mattered.
“Just have a little humanity,” Flake said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s name. This story has been updated.