Grouchy and defensive, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley on Thursday morning convened the hearing he reluctantly scheduled in response to psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh with a list of grievances. The same man who refused to even consider President Obama’s election-year nominee, Merrick Garland, for 10 months — a cynical act of partisanship unprecedented since the mid-1800s — criticized his Democratic colleagues on the committee for grandstanding during the initial hearing, before any allegations against Kavanaugh were made public. He claimed that attorneys for two other accusers had since stonewalled his investigators before dismissing their allegations as “unsubstantiated” anyway. And he griped at Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, for not releasing a letter sooner that Ford sent her in confidence in July.
In fact, Feinstein didn’t even show the letter to her fellow Democrats, to their frustration, before news of its existence leaked to the press and Ford came forward in an interview with the Washington Post, despite fearing for her safety, so that she would be the one to tell her own story about how an inebriated 17-year-old Kavanaugh allegedly pinned her to a bed at a party, covering her mouth and groping her while trying to tear off her clothes as his friend watched. After she did, Grassley said he would conduct follow-up phone interviews about it with Ford and Kavanaugh, then, after facing pushback and agreeing to a hearing, tried to rush it through on Monday, possibly aware that a second allegation would soon come out. (Grassley has denied that.)
Either way, committee Republicans — several of whom had already made clear they would support Kavanaugh’s confirmation regardless of the outcome Thursday — were obviously concerned about the optics so close to midterm elections in the year of the #MeToo movement. Faced with the prospect of 11 men questioning Ford, whose emotional and determined testimony left little in doubt about her credibility, as even Republicans conceded, they instead solicited the help of a “female assistant,” as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called her, to do their dirty work.
The “female assistant,” a veteran sex crimes prosecutor from Arizona’s Maricopa County named Rachel Mitchell, was tasked with preventing a repeat of 1991, when another all-male panel of committee Republicans grilled Anita Hill, the woman who leveled allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas — although despite how that looked, senators, including Grassley, voted to confirm him to the high court regardless.
Mitchell succeeded, insofar as she treated Ford with respect, but she was ill-suited for the format Grassley insisted on for the hearing, which bore little resemblance to a criminal proceeding. As Democrats used their time to allow Ford to reinforce her story, bolstering it with her academic expertise about how the brain handles memory recall, Mitchell, accustomed to lengthy depositions, focused on minutiae intended to pick apart her narrative and was cut off each time after just five minutes by Grassley, who had insisted on the short back-and-forth questioning periods between her and Democrats. Journalists reported that Trump allies were dismayed by how the hearing was going. On Fox News, anchor Chris Wallace called it “a disaster for the Republicans.”
When it was Kavanaugh’s turn to face questions in the afternoon, the partisan division became more stark. Angry and defiant, at times crying, the DC circuit court judge accused Democrats of smearing him with falsehoods for political gain that he said had ruined his reputation. He contended this was “revenge on behalf of the Clintons” (in the ‘90s, working under Ken Starr during the Bill Clinton impeachment proceedings, Kavanaugh spent $2 million investigating conspiracy theories about the supposed murder of White House aide Vince Foster, who committed suicide, and drafted a list of explicit sexual questions to ask the president about Monica Lewinsky). “This confirmation process has become a national disgrace,” he said, accusing Democrats of having “replaced advice and consent with search and destroy.”
At first, Mitchell questioned Kavanaugh, too, but Grassley, who later complained about the length of the hearing as it approached eight hours, was apparently less concerned about procedure by now. Before long, Republicans on the committee took over, asking sympathetic questions in hopes of emphasizing the “he said, she said” nature of the proceedings, at which no other witnesses were called on to testify.
Yet, if anyone’s credibility was in doubt, it was that of Kavanaugh, who had already apparently lied repeatedly during his initial hearing by denying that he knew about stolen documents, warrantless wiretapping, and the torture of alleged enemy combatants when he served in the Bush administration despite recently released documents showing the opposite.
On Thursday, Kavanaugh adamantly denied Ford’s allegation and those of the two other women that Grassley had earlier called “unsubstantiated.” He claimed that he’d never drank to excess, despite recollections from former classmates to the contrary; a memoir written by his friend Mark Judge, a recovering alcoholic and the man Ford claimed was in the room with him during the assault, titled Wasted: Tales of a GenX Drunk, in which Judge appears to refer to Kavanaugh by a pseudonym in an anecdote about him puking and passing out drunk in a car (asked to confirm if this was referring to him, Kavanaugh would not answer); a calendar Kavanaugh gave the committee from the summer of 1982 intended to clear his name that referenced drinking and partying on multiple occasions and was consistent with Ford’s timeline of events; and a speech he gave to the Yale Law School Federalist Society in 2014 in which he described partying when he was in law school.
Kavanaugh also repeatedly dodged a question about whether he would support an FBI investigation into the recent allegations against him, a prospect that Senate Republicans, eager to finally realize their party’s decades-long quest for a reliably conservative Supreme Court, have shown little interest in. (After the hearing, the American Bar Association, whose “well-qualified” rating Kavanaugh previously boasted about, called for an FBI investigation in the interest of “respect for the rule of law and due process under law.”) Grassley complained about this, too, noting that Kavanaugh had been subject to six background checks throughout his time in government, none of which revealed any sexual misconduct.
It was an apparent departure from what Grassley said in 1991 during the Clarence Thomas hearing, when he spoke of the value of FBI investigations to fully vet nominees facing serious allegations, telling Anita Hill this would help ensure “that even an 11th hour charge like yours has been fully considered.”
At about four hours and seven minutes in, you can see Grassley himself, during Hill hearings, talking about how in future every member of the committee should get FBI reports on cases like this: https://t.co/65SMU7mQbs
— Rebecca Traister (@rtraister) September 27, 2018
Instead, Grassley quoted Joe Biden, the Democrat who chaired the committee then and partook in the “character assassination” of Hill he now says he regrets he didn’t do more to prevent. “The next person who refers to an FBI report as being worth anything obviously doesn’t understand anything,” Grassley read. “The FBI explicitly does not in this or any other case reach a conclusion. Period. They say he said, she said, and they said, period.”
Grassley took the quote out context — Biden was responding to Republican Orrin Hatch, who claimed an FBI investigation had cleared Thomas and now openly doubts Kavanaugh’s accusers. But ultimately, that’s what the Thomas hearing itself amounted to, as Biden gaveled it to an end, refusing to allow others who were willing and able to corroborate Hill’s allegations under oath to speak because he feared political blowback. In much the same way, it’s also how Grassley orchestrated Thursday’s hearing, allowing Republicans to say they have taken Ford’s allegations seriously, even though some had already dismissed them out of hand, while casting her and Kavanaugh’s testimony as nothing more than a he-said, she-said matter and giving them cover to vote for him as most of them intended to do all along.