Judicial ambition and #MeToo collide in a public spectacle
WASHINGTON — There was the elite private high school. The Ivy League education. The choice White House post. An appeals court judgeship. And finally, the culmination of a brilliant career, a nomination to the country’s highest court.
And on Thursday, faced with the possibility that it might all come crashing down after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct, Brett Kavanaugh launched an emotional and angry response that stunned onlookers.
It was an uncomfortable and rare sight — a nominee to the highest court in the land crying before a panel of senators — in a performance that seemed tuned as much to defending his honor as to salvaging his nomination.
At the end of the draining testimony, it remained unclear if he would survive to be confirmed, or if he would go down swinging and sniffling.
“You may defeat me in the vote, but you’ll never get me to quit,” said Kavanaugh. “Never.”
He teared up as he said the confirmation process has “destroyed” his family and could end his teaching career. He pushed his tongue into his cheek, trying to compose himself, as he expressed regret for frat-boy behavior as a young man while still insisting he never crossed the line to sexual misconduct.
The defiant testimony came after Senate Republicans attempted, as Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell put it several days earlier, to “plow right through” the Supreme Court confirmation process. But the new allegations, and the GOP insistence to move ahead quickly, further inflamed the roiling #MeToo movement, bringing the national reckoning over male treatment of women into the wood-paneled chamber of the Senate committee.
In the days since Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations were first publicized, there’s been a renewed conversation about acceptable behavior, with Americans reexamining episodes from their past. That continued Thursday, as women and men across the country watched and listened to the testimony and shared their own stories.
Ford, a woman who has never testified before Congress, came across as poised, likable, and, above all, credible. She controlled the emotion in her voice as she recounted chilling new details about the alleged attack 36 years ago.
What still stands out to her all these years later, she said, is the laughter she remembers between Kavanaugh and one of his friends, Mark Judge, the night of a party where she said she was attacked.
“They were laughing with each other,” Ford said. “I was, you know, underneath one of them while the two laughed.”
She added the sounds were of “two friends having a really good time with one another.”
Later she was asked to detail exactly what she remembered. Ford offered bursts of memories.
“The stairwell,” she said. “The living room. The bedroom. The bed on the right side of the room. The bathroom in close proximity. The laughter, the uproarious laughter. And the multiple attempts to escape and the final ability to do so.”
She spoke with emotion in her voice, but was careful to smile when she addressed Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, and at times even set aside objections from her lawyers when the Senate Judiciary Committee’s designated questioner, Rachel Mitchell, sought answers that strayed into matters of attorney-client privilege.
Some Republicans have said that they believe Ford was attacked by someone, but think she is confused about the attacker’s identity.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the panel, tried to clear this up quickly and asked Ford if this could all be a case of mistaken identity. “Absolutely not,” Ford said forcefully.
Later, under questioning from Senator Patrick Leahy, she said she was “100 percent” certain that Kavanaugh was the one who assaulted her.
Between Ford and Kavanaugh, the only two witnesses called, there was a massive chasm — with senators forced to decide whom to believe. That was by design. Grassley refused to subpoena Judge. And the panel declined to subpoena two other potential witnesses. All have said in written statements that they cannot confirm the events. Still, several senators said they wished they had the chance to evaluate the credibility of these additional people. The Republicans opted against an FBI investigation.
The GOP also didn’t allow the other two women who’ve made allegations against Kavanaugh to speak.
Deborah Ramirez has alleged that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her while drunk at a party at Yale University. Julie Swetnick has said that Kavanaugh was present at drunken high school parties where girls were gang raped — though she has not said that he participated in those assaults.
Kavanaugh denied all of these allegations. “I’ve never sexually assaulted anyone,” he said. That has been his line since the accusations arose earlier this month. But aside from one Washington Post article, the country had not heard from Ford, who lives a private life in California.
She described in great detail how she had told others about the attack, including her therapist, her husband, her friends. Once she saw that Kavanaugh might be appointed to the Supreme Court, she testified, she reached out to her member of Congress and sent a note to The Washington Post’s tip line. Ford described her efforts as her civic duty as a citizen.
Even fierce conservative combatants were impressed.
“Ford seems kind. This doesn’t strike me as partisan,” said Mike Cernovich, a men’s rights conspiracy theorist and a Trump supporter, in a social media posting. “This will be a tough vote.”
He added, before Kavanaugh testified, “Hard to see Kavanaugh gets confirmed after the Ford testimony.”
Republican senators effectively silenced themselves during the first half of the hearing, with Grassley ceding all of the GOP time to Mitchell, who asked questions of the witness. Mitchell was there to avoid the appearance of Republican men grilling the witness. (There are six Republican women in the Senate, but none is assigned to the judiciary panel.)
But the use of Mitchell led to a disjointed hearing. She would ask questions for five minutes and appear to be building toward a point, but her momentum would be broken each time that time expired and Democratic senators got their five-minute turn.
Mitchell also focused on seemingly minor details: Was Ford really scared of flying, as she’d told committee members? Who recommended her attorney? Who paid for her lie detector test?
Though the hearing riveted many people across the country, the immediate audience for those questions, which sought to show a Democratic plot to push Ford’s testimony into the public sphere, was much smaller: President Trump and a handful of undecided Republican senators who will decide the fate of this nomination.
The broader impact, though, could be felt in about six weeks in the midterm elections where a record number of women are on the ballot. Most of them are Democrats.