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At Kavanaugh hearing, tests of credibility and partisan blowups

Judy Woodruff takes a deep look at the day-long hearing into allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh with Amy Walter from the Cook Political Report, Michael Gerson of The Washington Post, and former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, also a former prosecutor.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we are going to listen to some more pivotal moments from today's hearing throughout the program.

    In her opening testimony, Christine Blasey Ford described the alleged attack and why she didn't tell her story publicly until years later.

    Let's hear what she told the lawmakers.

  • Christine Blasey Ford:

    Brett's assault on me drastically altered my life. For a very long time, I was too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone these details.

    I did not want to tell my parents that I, at age 15, was in a house without any parents present, drinking beer with boys.

    I convinced myself that, because Brett did not rape me, I should just move on and just pretend that it didn't happen.

    Over the years, I told very, very few friends that I had this traumatic experience. I told my husband before we were married that I had experienced a sexual assault. I had never told the details to anyone — the specific details — until May 2012, during a couples counseling session.

    My husband recalls that I named my attacker as Brett Kavanaugh.

    After that May 2012 therapy session, I did my best to ignore the memories of the assault, because recounting them caused me to relive the experience, and caused panic and anxiety.

    Occasionally, I would discuss the assault in an individual therapy session, but talking about it caused more reliving of the trauma, so I tried not to think about it or discuss it.

    But until July 2018, I had never named Mr. Kavanaugh as my attacker outside of therapy.

    This changed in early July 2018. I saw press reports stating that Brett Kavanaugh was on the short list of a list of very well-qualified Supreme Court nominees. I thought it was my civic duty to relay the information I had about Mr. Kavanaugh's conduct, so that those considering his nomination would know about this assault.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So we take a closer look at this extraordinary day with three people who've been here all day as part of our live coverage of the hearing.

    Elizabeth Holtzman, who served four terms in Congress representing the state of New York, she was a Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee and later served as the district attorney in Brooklyn. She's now a private attorney. And her book "The Case for Impeaching Trump" will be released next month.

    Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, and Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post. He also worked as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush at the same time Brett Kavanaugh served in the White House.

    Welcome back to all of you. We have been together all day long.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Quite a day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now it's the "NewsHour." It's real.

    Amy, just getting back to how Christine Blasey Ford introduced herself, it seems to me she was in many ways trying to — what was coming across was a genuine, sincere effort to explain why she did this and that it wasn't politically motivated, which is what the Republicans are saying.

  • Amy Walter:

    This is somebody nobody had seen before, had never heard her speak before.

    We had only seen what had been reported in news reports. And this is someone who came across as very genuine, as very real. As Lisa pointed out, she's not very familiar with the ways of Washington. She was unfamiliar with some of the questions.

    But you walked away thinking, this is somebody who doesn't — wasn't interested in trying to make a broader case against the system. She was there because of what had happened to her. And, as we noted here, she opened by saying, when I saw his name on the short list…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Amy Walter:

    … that's when I — that's when I came forward.

    But it was pretty clear as well as she was getting questioned, not, again, by the Republican senators, but by the person that they had selected to do the questioning,that the case they were trying to make was whether or not she was genuine in her recollection and whether or not she had ulterior motives. And neither of those things came through.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Michael Gerson, how did she do at trying to come across as genuine and real?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, I think the advantage was, she didn't try to come across. She was actually genuine and real.

    Was she plausible? Yes. I think she was absolutely plausible. Was she moving? Yes, she was very moving.

    And, at the end of that testimony, you had the emotional feel — or I did — that this may be over, because of the way that she had — had done. She simply didn't look like she was trying to be a part of some larger political cause, whatever it was, even MeToo movement. It was about her and her story. And it seemed quite authentic.

    And so I — I think it was an excellent performance, precisely because it wasn't a performance.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it came, Liz Holtzman, in the middle of this very political environment we were in. It was as if — it was as if, here's a real human moment in the middle of something that's become very political.

  • Elizabeth Holtzman:

    Right. and I agree with my two colleagues here.

    She was very authentic. She was disarming because she had no motive. She — she was humble. She wasn't arrogant. And she talked about trying to make civic duty — her civic duty in coming forward to try to help the committee make the right decision. She wasn't anti conservative people on the Supreme Court. She wasn't pro them. She just wanted this person, the committee, the president to understand what he had done, in her view, I mean, the allegations.

    So I thought she was very, very strong and convincing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Amy, you did come away from that part of the hearing with the sense that she had held her own.

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, absolutely.

    And there were many people wondering whether it was a good idea for Republicans to have given this — the way that this hearing was set up, the way that it was a woman asking her these questions only gave her — it seemed to give her much more credibility, and it took it away too from the partisan. There weren't Republicans going after her, making it look as it they had an agenda.

    And so it allowed her then to look like she was there just telling a story, rather than trying to pursue some — something else, some ulterior motive.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, speaking of the woman who was doing some of those questions for the Republicans, let's go now to another set of exchanges from the hearing.

    This is the woman who also took some of the spotlight today. She is Rachel Mitchell. She is a sex crimes prosecutor from Maricopa County, Arizona.

    The committee Republicans tapped her, and they ceded their time to her for all of their questions for Christine Blasey Ford, while Democrats used their time to question Blasey Ford directly.

    Now, later, some Republicans themselves questioned — they asked the questions themselves during Brett Kavanaugh's testimony.

    But let's listen to the prosecutor and some of her exchanges here.

  • Rachel Mitchell:

    I want to talk to you about the day that this happened leading up to the gathering.

  • Christine Blasey Ford:

    OK.

  • Rachel Mitchell:

    In your statement this morning, have you told us everything that you remember about the day leading up to that?

  • Christine Blasey Ford:

    Yes.

  • Rachel Mitchell:

    Let me ask just a few questions to make sure that you've thought of everything, OK?

    You indicated that you were at the country club swimming that day.

  • Christine Blasey Ford:

    That's my best estimate of how this could have happened.

  • Rachel Mitchell:

    May I ask, Dr. Ford, how did you get to Washington?

  • Christine Blasey Ford:

    In an airplane.

  • Rachel Mitchell:

    OK.

    It's — I ask that, because it's been reported by the press that you would not submit to an interview with the committee because of your fear of flying. Is — is that true?

  • Christine Blasey Ford:

    Well, I was willing — I was hoping that they would come to me, but then I realized that was an unrealistic request.

  • Rachel Mitchell:

    I also saw on your C.V. that you list the following interests of surf travel, and you, in parentheses Hawaii, Costa Rica, South Pacific islands and French Polynesia. Have you been all to those places?

  • Christine Blasey Ford:

    Correct.

  • Rachel Mitchell:

    By airplane?

  • Christine Blasey Ford:

    Yes.

  • Rachel Mitchell:

    And your interests also include oceanography, Hawaiian and Tahitian culture. Did you travel by air as a part of those interests?

  • Christine Blasey Ford:

    Correct.

  • Rachel Mitchell:

    All right. Thank you very much.

  • Christine Blasey Ford:

    Easier for me to travel going that direction when it's a vacation.

  • Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii:

    We all know that the prosecutor, even though this clearly is not a criminal proceeding, is asking Dr. Ford all kinds of questions about what happened before and after, but basically not during the attack.

    The prosecutor should know that sexual assault survivors often do not remember peripheral information, such as what happened before or after the traumatic event.

  • Rachel Mitchell:

    When we left off, we were still talking about the polygraph, and I believe you said it hasn't been paid for yet. Is that correct?

  • Woman:

    Let me put an end to this misery. Her lawyers have paid for her polygraph.

  • Man:

    As is routine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Michael Gerson there were some attempts, clearly, by the prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, to try to look for weaknesses in Christine Blasey Ford's explanations, whether it was, how are you paying for your lawyers? You said you are afraid of flying.

    How much of a dent was made, do you think?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Not much.

    If the goal was to poke holes in the main story, I don't — I don't think it was very effective. She was consistent in her story. She had explanations for things that seemed natural.

    You know, the tone of the questioning was not rude, or — and I think — but it would also did not seem particularly effective. You know, the points, like the flying point, seemed just as irrelevant to this as school yearbooks, in my view, that — so, I think, you know, she spent some time on some blind alleys.

    But, for the most part, I think her story held together.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about you, Liz Holtzman.

    Did it hold up completely, in your mind?

  • Elizabeth Holtzman:

    Yes.

    And, actually, I think she strengthened the case about it being not politically motivated because she very much clarified the fact that she only came forward on this — and she came forward in a secret way, she didn't want publicity about it — when they were other people being considered.

    In other words, there was a short list. She didn't come forward when he was the nominee. She came forward — only when he was a nominee. She came forward before that, hoping that there would be other — she said there were other qualified people on the short list. And she thought that people should know, the president and Senate should know, so that he wouldn't be included on the short list.

    That didn't mean she had an anti-Republican or anti-conservative agenda. So I thought that became very clear. And I think the idea — I mean, I think this is where Brett Kavanaugh went way off, overboard.

    I mean, talk about a well-funded effort against him. She's going online with a GoFundMe kind of campaign. She doesn't even quite understand what that is, and she's not paying for her lawyers. And she's had to raise money locally to pay for the security.

    So this is not a well-funded campaign from anybody else.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Amy, as you look at the Republicans' decision not to ask the questions themselves, but to turn it over to the female prosecutor — they called her a female assistant, woman assistant — did that turn out to be a smart move?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, I think it was underlined when we got to the next section, which is when Brett Kavanaugh then took the stand and — or sat in the hearing, trial, in that way. He's not taking the stand.

  • Michael Gerson:

    It looked like one.

  • Amy Walter:

    But it felt in many ways like one.

    And she started, Ms. Mitchell started asking him questions in the same vein and in the same way that she'd asked of Dr. Ford. But then Senator Lindsey Graham took the microphone and made a very partisan case against the Democrats on the committee, turned it completely away from Dr. Ford, completely away from the events that happened that night, and onto the way in which this story got in to the press, how it dropped at the last minute.

    And then from then on, every single other questioner was a Republican, who then we — we went from what was a very — we just talked about this wasn't really very partisan. This was sort of a very deliberative process in the morning, to an absolute focus on partisanship in the second half.

    And it was all directed at Democrats on the committee and the way in which they held onto this letter and the way in which they, as they said, constantly dropped it, sprung it, ambushed them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's almost as if we were lifted away from the partisanship for a brief period, and then we plunged right back into it with Kavanaugh.

    So, let's take a closer look now at some of Judge Kavanaugh's testimony. He came after Christine Blasey Ford.

    We played shorter clips of his opening statement earlier in the program. Here now is a longer selection.

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    Shortly after I was nominated, the Democratic Senate leader said he would — quote — "oppose me with everything" he's got. A Democratic senator on this committee publicly referred to me as evil — evil — think about that word — and said that those who supported me were — quote — "complicit in evil."

    I understand the passions of the moment. But I would say to those senators, your words have meaning. Millions of Americans listened carefully to you.

    Given comments like those, is it any surprise that people have been willing to do anything, to make any physical threat against my family, to send any violent e-mail to my wife, to make any kind of allegation against me and against my friends, to blow me up and take me down?

    You sowed the wind. For decades to come, I fear that the whole country will reap the whirlwind.

    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.

    This is a circus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This was an angry Brett Kavanaugh, Michael Gerson.

    There were emotional points. But I think what we just heard were some of the angry moments, very angry, as we were saying earlier, at the Democrats, and putting this in perspective, saying hit job, this was a Democratic hit job, rather than some genuine…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Michael Gerson:

    Yes, but he came across at his best moments as defending not just his nomination, but his life, his character, his integrity, his family.

    And a charge of sexual assault is a very serious charge. And he reacted, I think, in a way that was deeply offended and emotional in those in those sections. And he seemed utterly convinced of his innocence at every stage.

    There were, then, some elements that were a little bit more over the top, particularly on the partisan side and in his confrontation with some of the senators, where he just seemed to be throwing the dice and saying what a lot of nominees would like to say in a circumstance like this and never would.

    But — so I think that — those parts were maybe less effective, except maybe effective with a partisan group of Republicans. But it did humanize him in a completely different way than her testimony humanized her.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Liz Holtzman, did he help himself with this?

  • Elizabeth Holtzman:

    Well, I think he may have helped himself vis-a-vis President Trump, because of his references to Clinton and his references to revenge and his references to the partisanship.

    But I think, for a thoughtful viewer, they have to see that, basically, the position that Mr. Kavanaugh took was demeaning to the victim, because what he — the alleged victim — because what he was saying was, basically, it's all orchestrated, funded by left-wing groups, she became a pawn in this process.

    But if you listen to her at the beginning, you would see that she was a human being whose whole life had been turned upside down by this, so — and who came across as very authentic.

    So I feel that people looking at this will see very partisan, very demeaning of the victim, and somebody whose temperament may not be the right thing for the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we have got one more.

    As we have been discussing, during their questioning of Judge Kavanaugh, Democrats also zeroed in on the idea of an FBI investigation. It is something they have been pushing for ever since these allegations emerged.

    Now, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois posed that question directly to Brett Kavanaugh, which caused Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to push back forcefully.

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    If you, Judge Kavanaugh, turn to Don McGahn and to this committee and say, for the sake of my reputation, my family name and to get to the bottom of the truth of this, I am not going to be an obstacle to an FBI investigation, I would hope that all the members of the committee would join me in saying, we're going to abide by your wishes, and we will have that investigation.

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    I would welcome whatever the committee wants to do, because I'm telling the truth.

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    I want to know what you want to do.

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    I'm telling the truth.

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    I want to know what you want to do.

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    I'm innocent. I'm innocent of this charge.

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    Judge Kavanaugh, will you support an FBI investigation right now?

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    I — I will do whatever the committee wants to…

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    Personally, do you think that's the best thing for us to do?

    You won't answer?

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    Look, Senator, I have — I have — I have said I wanted a hearing, and I have said I would welcome anything. I'm innocent.

    This thing was beheld — held, when it could have been presented in the ordinary way.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    If you wanted an FBI investigation, you could have come to us. What you want to do is destroy this guy's life, hold this seat open and hope you win in 2020. You have said that, not me.

    You have got nothing to apologize for. When you see Sotomayor and Kagan, tell them that Lindsey said hello, because I voted for them. I would never do to them what you have done to this guy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amy Walter, this is what you were referring to a moment ago, Lindsey Graham very upset on behalf of Brett Kavanaugh, and pointing accusatory fingers at the Democrats.

  • Amy Walter:

    This has now gone — as we have said, it's transitioned from a focus on what happened this night in 1982 to where we are in 2018, which is an incredibly polarized, emotionally raw country.

    And, ultimately, I think what you saw during the Kavanaugh piece of today was an appeal from Republicans to other Republicans to say, we have one person who is saying they're 100 percent sure of this happened, one person saying they're 100 percent sure it didn't happen.

    One thing we do know — is what Republicans are saying — is, one thing we do know is that Democrats sat on this. This is political. If you're a good Republican, if you support the party, if you support conservative principles, a person who's going to be a conservative justice, then you have to vote for Brett Kavanaugh, because, let's face it, this really all comes down to whether Republicans can get 50 votes out of the United States Senate.

    They have 51 Republican.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Michael, at this point — I know you haven't had a chance to talk to all 51 Republican senators.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you're somebody who has watched this city for a long time. You watch how Congress works. What do you — what does your gut…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, I will be watching what those few members, like Senator Collins or Senator Murkowski or Senator Flake…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Michael Gerson:

    … want in the next stage here. Are they going to ask for something, like a continued investigation of the other charges?

    Or are they going to ask for an FBI investigation or delay? That, I think, is — they have disproportionate influence over this process right now, the marginal members that might be influenced.

    And so I don't know. I don't know what the reaction is going to be. I mean, this was a Clarence Thomas reaction to the accusations. He went after — he didn't go after the victim. He went after the committee. And he laid into them in a way that was talking about the politics of personal destruction and making points about due process and his — from his perspective.

    And I think that that could rally a lot of Republicans and maybe alienate some other people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    With Clarence Thomas, it was a high-tech lynching, he called it.

  • Michael Gerson:

    And it worked. His defense worked.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That was his — and, today, we heard strong language from Brett Kavanaugh about what was going on.

  • Elizabeth Holtzman:

    But the only way you can call this a high-tech lynching and blame the Democrats is to demean the victim, because then her integrity, her authenticity is meaningless.

    What they're saying is, implicitly — I agree with you, they didn't say it explicitly — but, implicitly, their argument, the central thrust of their argument is, she's a pawn in a larger political process, and we don't have to pay attention to her.

    They're not saying it explicitly, but that's the thrust of their argument.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, can — Amy, can that — does that work? Does it work to say, we respect her, we respect her story, but this is all part of a conspiracy, a hit job?

  • Amy Walter:

    Right. That's what the calculus is, right?

    And that's why I think, if you are Senator Mitch McConnell, you are with all of your Republican senators right now, and you're taking their pulse. And you're getting a sense for where — how vulnerable they feel to making this vote based on what they saw today.

    We know at least two to four of them said, I'm not going to make any decision until I see what happens today. So, as Lisa pointed out, there's still a hearing scheduled at 9:30 in the morning. It seemed pretty clear from the Republicans on that committee they want to take that vote.

    But McConnell knows that what the committee believes is not all that — is not the end-all/be-all. They have got to find the rest of those votes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, the rest of the Senate.

    Well, it has been quite a day. I think this is one we're going to remember for a very long time.

  • Michael Gerson:

    I agree with that.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amy Walter, Michael Gerson, Elizabeth Holtzman, thank you very much.

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