WASHINGTON — A riveting, gut-wrenching spectacle engulfed Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court Thursday during a confirmation hearing where Kavanaugh repeatedly broke down in tears, expressed bitter defiance, and shouted over Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The extraordinary hearing offered the Senate and the country a stark choice between his impassioned denials of sexual misconduct and the painful allegations of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in high school.
With the makeup of the nation’s highest court hanging in the balance, Ford delivered her allegations firmly, calmly, and with a degree of credibility even Republicans acknowledged. She testified she was “100 percent’’ certain it was Kavanaugh who, on a summer night in the 1980s, pinned her down on a bed, covered her mouth to prevent her from screaming, and ground his hips against her.
“I am here today not because I want to be — I am terrified,” said Ford, her voice wavering as she recounted the alleged episode with testimony that left that Capitol, which has been consumed by a partisan furor over the allegations, in utter silence.
“I believed he was going to rape me,” Ford said. She added: “It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.”
When Kavanaugh’s turn to testify arrived later in the day, he read a prepared statement that dripped with outrage and specific denials of Ford’s accusations. The former Republican lawyer wore a blue tie and took aim at the left, the Clintons, and Democrats who he said were out to stop him at all costs.
“You have replaced advice and consent with search and destroy,” Kavanaugh declared, glaring at the senators in the room as his voice rose.
The hearing ended more than eight hours after it started, and President Trump called the judge’s testimony ‘‘powerful, honest, and riveting’’ and declared, ‘‘The Senate must vote!’’
Senate Republicans said the committee will vote Friday morning, followed by procedural votes in the full Senate Saturday and Monday. The final confirmation vote will be Tuesday.
Kavanaugh’s anger was reminiscent of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s defense against Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment 27 years ago, when he said he was a victim of a “high-tech lynching.’’ But Kavanaugh’s performance was far more emotional and amounted to an unprecedented display of raw sentiment for a Supreme Court nominee.
He broke down repeatedly and struggled to compose himself as he reflected on the reputational damage he has endured over the past two weeks and how the allegations have “destroyed’’ his family. He choked up as he recounted that his 10-year-old daughter had suggested the family pray for Ford. Repeatedly taking drinks of water, he described how this episode means he may never be able to teach law school classes again or coach youth basketball.
“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, 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,” he said. “This is a circus.”
It remained unclear if Kavanaugh’s performance would save his nomination, or sink him. His fate likely rests in the hands of a small group of Republican swing votes, Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, and Jeff Flake of Arizona. His testimony seemed geared toward appealing to Trump and Republicans who are angry that Ford’s allegations emerged late in the confirmation process, after Kavanaugh appeared to be on a glide path following confirmation hearings earlier in the month.
“This is a national disgrace, the way you’re being treated,’’ Utah Senator Orrin Hatch told Kavanaugh during the hearing, even though he had said Ford wasn’t “uncredible” earlier in the day.
But Kavanaugh’s extended displays of emotion, and his bitter partisan words, also risked being seen as falling short of a judicial temperament.
During her testimony, Ford inflected the pain of her memories with human moments, like when she requested caffeine to sustain her through her testimony — first coffee and then a sugary bottle of Coca-Cola. She seemed eager to answer questions forthrightly, leaning into the microphone and repeating that she wanted be “helpful” to the committee.
At one point, she asked Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley if she could address him — an exchange that was rare, because Grassley and the Republicans hired a sex crimes prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, to ask the questions for them.
“Can I speak to you directly?” she said, during an exchange about the committee’s willingness to send investigators to California to speak to her. “I would have happily hosted you.”
Ford at times relied on her background as a psychologist, seeming to act as the expert witness buttressing her own testimony. Sometimes, science and emotion converged, as when Senator Patrick Leahy asked her about her most vivid memory from the night of the alleged assault.
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the uproarious laughter between the two, and them having fun at my expense,” Ford said, adding, “I was, you know, underneath one of them while the two laughed. Two friends having a really good time with one another.”
Ford acknowledged under questioning that she could not remember key details of the alleged episode: She did not know the date of the party, the address of the home where it was held, or how she got there and how she got home after the alleged attack.
Sitting in front of the all-male group of Judiciary Republicans, Mitchell largely avoided questions about the alleged assault itself. She appeared more focused on Ford’s motivation, asking her numerous questions about why and how she came forward. Ford said she came forward because of her sense of civic duty, and acknowledged that one of her lawyers was recommended to her by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein’s team.
Despite the partisan charge to the proceedings, some Republicans on the committee struck a respectful tone after Ford’s testimony ended.
“I found no reason to find her not credible,’’ said Senator John Cornyn of Texas. “There are obviously gaps in her story. Obviously we know people who are traumatized can have those sort of gaps. . . . Again, I regret that she finds herself in this circus-like setting.”
Other Republicans drew a harsher conclusion.
“This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” said an apoplectic Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, who heaped sympathy on Kavanaugh from the dais as the day wore on.
“Would you say you’ve been through hell?” Graham asked.
“I’ve been through hell and then some,” Kavanaugh said.
Both parties on the committee sought to tie the testimony to larger cultural moments, with Democrats evoking the national reckoning over sexual assault that has come with the #MeToo movement. Chris Coons, the Democratic senator from Delaware, said three constituents reached out to him in a single hour during the hearing to share their own stories of sexual assault. And people began calling into C-Span with their own tales of sexual trauma.
“Because of you coming forward, your courage, you are affecting the culture of our country,” said Cory Booker, the New Jersey Democrat. “You are speaking truth that this country needs to understand in how we deal with survivors who come forward right now is unacceptable.”
Democratic senators raised additional allegations that have emerged after Ford’s first surfaced, by a fellow Yale University undergraduate who accused Kavanaugh of exposing himself to her, and by a woman who said Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge participated in parties during high school where women were drugged, groped, and gang raped. Kavanaugh denied them all.
Democrats repeatedly sought to get Kavanaugh to agree to an FBI investigation of the allegations against him, but he deflected the question, deferring to the Republican majority that runs the committee.
During his testimony, Kavanaugh repeated his vow not to withdraw from the nomination and tried to boost his bona fides with women by saying he had numerous female friends and had hired many female clerks. Breaking down in tears, he pointed to his high school calendars as signs of his innocence. He had been out of town on the weekends during the summer of 1982, as well as for beach week and a “legendary” basketball camp.
“Judge me by the standard that you would want applied to your father, your husband, your brother, or your son,” Kavanaugh said. “I am innocent of this charge.”
He declared he liked beer in high school and still does, and grew testy under questioning on the subject by Democrats. At one point, when Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota asked if he had ever drank so much he blacked out, he turned it back to her: “Have you?” (He later apologized.)
Kavanaugh also laid directly into Ford’s claims. “She says confidently that she had one beer at the party, but she does not say how she got to the house in question,” Kavanaugh said, and he repeatedly said Ford’s allegation had been refuted by the people she said were at the party.
Three of the people Ford has identified as being present at the party — Mark Judge, Patrick J. Smyth, and a woman named Leland Keyser — have denied knowledge of such an event.
But during her testimony, Ford offered up a possible reason why Smyth and Keyser would not have remembered.
“Nothing remarkable happened to them that evening,” she said, before turning her attention to Judge, who has not been called on to testify publicly. “I would expect that he would remember that this happened.”