Christine Blasey Ford said she was “100 percent” certain that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her. Kavanaugh, choking back tears, denied the allegation while lashing out at Democrats for turning his confirmation hearings into a “national disgrace.”
Ford and Kavanaugh made back-to-back appearances before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, providing several gripping, emotional hours of testimony that transfixed Washington. It was one of the most dramatic moments on Capitol Hill in recent memory — and a case of history repeating itself, as lawmakers and viewers across the nation debated the differences between the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh in the #MeToo era and the sexual harassment claims Anita Hill made against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991.
Yet for all the drama of the moment, it’s unclear what the impact of the hearing will be. Ford gave at times wrenching testimony and came across as a politically unmotivated victim who had willingly thrown herself into a political firestorm. Kavanaugh made a strong case for his innocence, and cataloged the damage the accusations had wrought on his reputation and family, though he refused to call for an FBI investigation, as Democrats hoped.
Senate Republicans have planned to move forward with a Judiciary Committee vote Friday. If the panel — which has 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats — vote in favor of Kavanaugh, it would pave the way for a full Senate vote.
As attention turns to the upcoming votes, here are key takeaways from Thursday’s hearing.
Was the outside prosecutor a good or bad strategy for Republicans?
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee hired Rachel Mitchell, a Phoenix prosecutor who specializes in sex crimes, to ask Ford questions on their behalf. All 11 Republicans on the 21-member panel are men, and the strategy appeared to be an effort to avoid the bad political optics of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee asked Hill questions about her sexual harassment claims against Thomas. But whatever the GOP’s goal, the plan seemed to backfire — at least at first.
Mitchell asked Ford piecemeal questions about the timing of the alleged incident and who was in the house where Ford claims the party took place, among other details.
Video by PBS NewsHour
There were also questions around whether Democrats or other outside groups had coached Ford before she reported her allegations or paid for her polygraph or other legal services. (At one point, Ford’s lawyers jumped in to say they were working pro-bono.) Ford also said she was aware of GoFundMe pages set up on her behalf.
There were several moments when Mitchell would try to gain momentum in her line of questioning but would then be promptly cut off once the five minutes were up. The result was a start-stop pattern of questioning.
“Would you believe me if I told you that there’s no study that says that this setting in five-minute increments is the best way to do that?” Mitchell said as she ended her time with Ford. People in the room — and Ford — laughed.
Video by PBS NewsHour
Mitchell then said it’s better to allow a victim, uninterrupted, to tell their narrative in a private setting.
The matchup put Kavanaugh’s supporters in the untenable position of having to pick apart the story of sympathetic and vulnerable alleged victim of sexual assault, without appearing to attack her personally on national television. Mitchell approached each question with Ford with compassion, even when trying to deconstruct her memory of three-decade-old facts. Chairman Chuck Grassley repeatedly inquired about Ford’s wellbeing during the hearing, and seemed to redirect any frustration he felt with the proceedings toward his Democratic senate colleagues, when the need would arise.
Samantha Guerry, a friend of Christine Blasey Ford, talks with the PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz about Thursday’s hearing.
In a preliminary assessment of the hearing, Fox News’ Chris Wallace said that Ford’s testimony was a “disaster” for Republicans. Other commentators on the network’s broadcast noted their frustration over the prosecutor’s questions, too.
Early into senators’ questioning of Kavanaugh, they stopped deferring to Mitchell, and she sat quietly for the remainder of the session. While Mitchell may not have been effective at deconstructing Ford’s testimony, she did serve as a neutral placeholder, saving GOP senators from any potentially uncomfortable exchanges with Ford. In doing so, she paved the way for Kavanaugh’s fiery testimony in the second half of the day.
It’s not yet clear whether that strategy will help or hurt the Republicans in the weeks ahead, as footage of Ford’s testimony will no doubt make its way into midterm campaign commercials across the nation.
Democrats used their time to focus on the realities for sexual assault survivors
Democratic ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein opened her comments by citing federal sexual assault statistics and explained why women may not immediately report their attackers. The California senator’s approach set the tone in the first half of Ford’s questioning where Democratic senators gave Ford room to describe how the incident impacted her and gave additional context on what happens for survivors after an attack.
In the latter half, Democratic senators tended to spend their five minutes giving speeches in support of Ford and other survivors. Among them: Sen. Cory Booker said it was “unacceptable” how the country treats sexual assault survivors. Ford was assured by Sen. Mazie Hirono that Thursday’s hearing was a confirmation hearing and not a criminal proceeding. Sen. Kamala Harris told Ford she believed her.
Before the hearing, some GOP senators have cast doubt on Ford’s allegation against Kavanaugh, pointing to how she was unable to recall certain details related to the incident. But, the 51-year-old psychology professor was clear about who her attacker was.
“With what degree of certainty do you believe that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted you?” Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin asked Ford.
“100 percent,” Ford said.
Video by PBS NewsHour
The moment underlined what Ford told Feinstein earlier in the hearing: that some details from a traumatic event will be “locked” into place, “whereas other details kind of drift.”
Among the more memorable moments: New details about how Ford struggled in the aftermath of the alleged attack
Ford’s testimony was at times emotional as she carefully recounted details of the incident that she remembered and its fallout. She was direct in addressing senators’ questions and explained when her memory fell short.
In her opening statement, Ford detailed some of the PTSD-like symptoms she’s dealt with as a result of the alleged attack. She said she disclosed her memories of the assault to her husband when they were finishing a remodeling project for their house. Her husband didn’t understand why she wanted a second front door. It was then she explained to her husband how Kavanaugh attacked her.
Video by PBS NewsHour
Later, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy asked Ford to talk about her strongest memory she had from the decades-long incident. “Something you cannot forget,” the Democratic senator told Ford.
Ford said, her voice shaky, something that was “indelible” from the incident with Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge was the “uproarious laughter” between the two and their having fun at her expense.
Video by PBS NewsHour
When Ford was questioned about why three potential witnesses to the incident had submitted sworn statements that said they had no recollection of the party, she said she thought Judge would. She said she wouldn’t expect that two of those people “would remember this evening. It was a very unremarkable party … nothing remarkable happened to them that evening.”
Video by PBS NewsHour
Ford said one of those people, her friend Leland Keyser, texted her an apology and good wishes.
Still a point of tension: Should the FBI investigate?
Kavanaugh repeatedly dodged questions from Democrats about why he wasn’t calling for an FBI investigation into Ford’s allegations, or whether he was willing to ask the White House to open such an investigation. Kavanaugh argued that FBI investigations didn’t draw conclusions, and that the bureau would just conduct the same kind of interviews senators already underway at the hearing. He also noted he demanded to testify before the Senate Judiciary panel the day after Ford’s allegations became public and was not given an opportunity to until now.
To voice a potentially controversial thought:
I don't understand either a) Republicans argument for not allowing some basic FBI investigation/question asking or b) why Democrats believe it will be potentially earth shaking.
— Lisa Desjardins (@LisaDNews) September 27, 2018
Both of those points appear to be true. In 1991, the FBI did not draw a conclusion about Anita Hill’s claims of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. It was up to the White House — which ordered the bureau to reopen Thomas’ background check to investigate Hill’s allegations — to draw a final conclusion on the FBI report. (The White House determined the allegations were “unfounded.”) Kavanaugh also repeatedly asked for a hearing in the days since Ford went public with her accusation. Still, his refusal to say whether he would support an FBI investigation made Kavanaugh seem evasive, and reinforced the Democrats’ suggestions that he might have something to hide.
In one memorable exchange, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill, asked Kavanaugh to turn to Don McGahn, the White House counsel sitting behind him in the hearing room, and ask for him to suspend his nomination and call for an FBI investigation.
“I welcome whatever the committee wants to do,” Kavanaugh responded, then repeated his point that FBI investigations don’t draw conclusions.
When Durbin pressed him again, Kavanaugh stared back in silence for several uncomfortable seconds. “You won’t answer,” Durbin said.
Kavanaugh never did.
Unusual levels of partisanship on display in the hearing
In his opening statement, Kavanaugh became emotional and choked up several times as he described the harm the allegations had inflicted on him and his family. “My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed,” Kavanaugh said. He held back tears when describing how, as his family prepared to pray together one night earlier this week, his younger daughter suggested they pray for Ford. “That’s a lot of wisdom from a 10-year-old,” he said.
Yet Kavanaugh’s personal anguish was often overshadowed by his sense of outrage at the proceedings. He called the way the allegations had been handled a “national disgrace,” and that was just the start.
His voice rising, Kavanaugh went on to call the accusations “false smears,” “crazy stuff,” and “all nonsense” that was “reported breathlessly” by the media, a line of attack used in recent days by Republicans and President Donald Trump. Perhaps most provocatively, Kavanaugh called the allegations “revenge on behalf of the Clintons,” and claimed that they were a “coordinated and well-funded effort” to get him to drop out. As he spoke, he looked at the Democrats on the dias, making clear that he held them responsible.
Helgi Walker, a former colleague of Brett Kavanaugh in the White House counsel’s office during the George W. Bush administration, says the judge’s defiant behavior in a Senate Judiciary hearing was typical of someone who is innocent.
It was an unusually partisan outburst from a Supreme Court nominee, and presented a marked contrast to Ford, who came across as nonpolitical. But whereas senators largely held back from making political attacks during Ford’s testimony, they unleashed with Kavanaugh. Democrats voiced their frustration over Kavanaugh’s evasions and unwillingness to call for an FBI probe. Republicans sided with Kavanaugh in blaming the Democrats for the confirmation process.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and a lawmaker not known for bombast, compared the proceedings to one of the most divisive periods in the history of the Senate. “I cannot think of the most embarrassing scandal for the United States Senate since the McCarthy hearings,” Cornyn said.
The angriest moment belonged to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who called the Kavanaugh allegations an “unethical sham” and sharply criticized Democrats. Then Graham laid down a direct challenge to his fellow GOP lawmakers. “To my Republican colleagues: if you vote no you’re legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics.”
After this tense day, what actually changed?
We don’t yet know if today’s hearing moved any votes on either side of the aisle, either for or against Kavanaugh. Soon after the hearing wrapped, President Trump tweeted his approval of Kavanaugh’s testimony, while senators gathered and decided to move forward with a committee vote on Friday morning.
Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him. His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting. Democrats’ search and destroy strategy is disgraceful and this process has been a total sham and effort to delay, obstruct, and resist. The Senate must vote!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 27, 2018
What was striking was the shift in how lawmakers and legal experts approach and talk about issues of sexual misconduct in the era of #MeToo. Gone was the room full of men questioning a single woman of the Anita Hill era, but taking its place was a pervasive sense of fear, experienced by both Ford and Kavanaugh as a result of threats in social media and elsewhere.
In defending himself, Kavanaugh mentioned his churchgoing, his coaching, his devotion to school and his history on the bench. Ten years ago those credentials would have been unassailable, but in just the last few years, every one of those social institutions has been rocked by their own sexual abuse scandals.
Judy Woodruff takes a deep look at the day-long hearing into allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
While the outcome of today’s hearing may not change the result of the Senate’s vote, it will likely have a lasting effect on U.S. culture for years to come.