The eyes of the country are on a small hearing room on Capitol Hill Thursday, where Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers, are testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
I’m watching right alongside you — and the nation. The testimony so far has been gripping — and the whole hearing, featuring both Ford and Kavanaugh, will be worth watching to get a full picture.
But several moments and themes have already stood out. Below you’ll find a contemporaneous set of takeaways that I think are worth taking note of as I watch the hearings live. Again, these takeaways are in the order of the actual hearing.
1. Ford is credible
This strikes me as the first question that anyone watching the hearing had to wonder. Before 11 days ago, no one outside of her family, social and professional circles knew who she was. Now everyone knows who she is — but very few people had seen anything other than a single picture of her wearing sunglasses. We hadn’t heard her voice, seen her mannerisms. And most importantly, we hadn’t seen her tell the story of the night in 1982, in which she alleges that assault took place.
Within a few minutes of her reading from her opening statement, it became clear that Ford was decidedly credible. She struck me as a normal person thrust into an impossible situation. Someone who was doing what she believed to be the right thing. Her voice shook. Her breath was short. She was clearly fighting her emotions as she offered a specific and at times devastating recounting of the episode at the center of her claim. She was sympathetic when discussing how her life had been horribly jolted by her decision to come forward with her allegations. (She told of having to stay in secure locales, at times separated from her family, and with security guards always around her.)
What I kept asking myself watching Ford’s testimony (and questioning) is, why would she be doing all of this if she didn’t believe she was telling the truth? Why subject yourself to all of this? What would her motive be for not telling the truth — as she remembers it — about what happened that night in the early 1980s? Critics would argue that her motivations are political — but I just don’t buy it. Not in watching Ford’s testimony.
2. The manner of questioning is, um, not great
It was always going to be a somewhat odd hearing, given that the 11 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee ceded their right to question Ford to an independent prosecutor named Rachel Mitchell. (Democrats did not do the same.) But the reality has been very jarring. For five minutes, Mitchell goes through a meticulous checking of the story that Ford has told through a variety of mediums. Then, suddenly, Mitchell is interrupted by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who tells her that the allotted five minutes is up. A Democratic senator then takes over, offering — at least to this point — undiluted praise for Ford’s bravery.
For a viewer — including the senators sitting on the Judiciary Committee — it makes the entire proceeding a bit difficult to follow. For Republicans, who were clearly concerned about how it might look to have 11 men asking question of a woman alleging sexual assault, the awkwardness of the back-and-forth questioning is something they are willing to deal with given the alternative.
3. Grassley’s tin ear
The reason Republicans — led by Grassley — chose to bring in Mitchell rather than to ask their own question of Ford is because they didn’t want to make themselves the story Thursday. But starting with his opening statement, the Iowa Republican is not doing very well in that regard.
Grassley’s opening statement sounded like a closing argument in which he seemed to focus almost exclusively on how incredibly gracious he had been in trying to ensure that Ford had a chance to tell her story. He didn’t help himself when he interrupted ranking member Dianne Feinstein, D-California, to make clear that he had planned to introduce Ford’s curriculum vitae even as Feinstein was doing so.
On several other occasions within the first two hours of the hearing, Grassley repeatedly interjected himself to make clear how far his committee had bent over backward to help Ford get to this day. I understand his desire to defend his own behavior and conduct — and that of the Senate Republican majority. But it rang as tone-deaf to me watching.
And maybe he’s figuring that out. During the first break in the hearing, Grassley told reporters: “I don’t think I can make any comments at all today, maybe it’s something I ought to sleep on. This is pretty important. We ought to be thinking about it a lot and not making hasty comments.”
4. Hatch’s ‘attractive’ gaffe
Asked how he believed Ford had done in the morning session of her testimony, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said this: “I don’t think she’s uncredible. I think she an attractive, good witness.” Asked what he meant, Hatch said, “In other words, she’s pleasing.”
Amid the almost-immediate furor caused by those comments, Hatch communications director Matt Whitlock noted that “Hatch uses ‘attractive’ to describe personalities, not appearances. If you search his past quotes you’ll see he’s used it consistently for years for men and women he believed has compelling personalities.”
Which I will take at face value. Hatch is an 84-year-old man who may occasionally use words and phrases that aren’t regularly used in modern diction. But here’s the thing: Context matters. If you are a sitting United States senator who has spent an entire morning listening to Ford’s testimony about the alleged sexual assault she endured as a teenager, you just can’t use the word “attractive” or “pleasing” to describe her. You can’t do it. Full stop.
5. Mitchell’s swings and misses
Rachel Mitchell, the independent prosecutor brought in by Grassley to ask the questions on behalf of the Republican senators, seemed to have two goals in her questioning:
- Trying to find holes in Ford’s story of the night in which she said that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her
- Trying to find any sort of instance where Democrats urged Ford to come forward or coached her on her story or her testimony
Aside from Ford acknowledging that one of the two law firms that she wound up employing to represent her was recommended by Feinstein’s office, Mitchell failed on both accounts.
There was also a very clear prosecutorial tone to Mitchell’s approach to her questioning of Ford. Which makes sense. She is a prosecutor! But the decision by Grassley (and, presumably, the other Senate Republicans) to defer all of their questioning to Mitchell ensured that outcome.
6. The silence of Senate Republicans
I get why Republicans decided that they couldn’t risk the images of 11 men interviewing a woman on sexual assault allegations. But their silence throughout the four-plus hours of questioning of Ford was striking. With the exception of Grassley, and a handful of small interjections from South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, no Republicans on the dais said anything.
Which, to me, was a mistake. Why not let the nation see you thank Ford for her willingness to testify? Or sympathize with the trauma she quite clearly experienced — whether or not you believe she is telling the capital “T” truth of the matter? How could that not be a better move — politically and as a human — thanks simply sitting in silence while a prosecutor questions Ford?
7. Kavanaugh’s angry and emotional opening statement
In the wake of Kavanaugh’s interview with Fox News earlier this week, the reporting coming out of the White House suggested that President Donald Trump was unhappy with what he believed to be a wooden and lifeless performance by the Supreme Court nominee.
Kavanaugh clearly took that criticism to heart. The first 10-ish minutes of his opening statements was delivered in something close to a yell. He blasted Democratic senators for what he insisted was a coordinated attempt to smear him. He invoked the Clintons, he called out Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee for calling him “evil.” He also insisted that he would never withdraw as the nominee and dared Democrats to vote him down.
The performance was one that undoubtedly delighted Trump. The question is whether Senate Republicans — first those on the Judiciary Committee and then the broader GOP conference — is convinced by Kavanaugh’s anger. Is it seen as the righteous indignation of a man who has been wrongly accused? Or the lashing out of a man who knows he is cornered? Or somewhere in between?
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