A chaotic, emotionally-charged week in the bitter partisan fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court took another dramatic on Friday. Jeff Flake, the Senator from Arizona, broke ranks with fellow Republicans to join Democrats’ call for a one week delay in Mr. Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote to allow the FBI to investigate accusations of sexual misconduct. Mr. Flake vowed that he would not vote to confirm without it, forcing the hand of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump.
The loss of Mr. Flake’s vote would put Mr. Kavanaugh’s nomination in serious jeopardy. By the end of the day, President Trump and ordered the FBI to investigate and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had agreed to push the vote back another week.
A Dramatic Hearing
Friday’s plot twist came a day after Mr. Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman whose allegations of sexual misconduct against him upended the confirmation process in its 11th hour, appeared before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to examine Ms. Ford’s claims.
Over the course of eight riveting hours Thursday, Ms. Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh delivered competing accounts of events three decades ago when Ms. Ford says Mr. Kavanaugh assaulted her at a high school party. Mr. Kavanaugh, in emotional and at times indignant testimony, was emphatic that it never happened. Ms. Ford was equally emphatic that it did.
The controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination has caught the nation’s attention because it is a human story as much as it is a political one. On the one side is Christine Blasey Ford, a woman clearly still haunted by a traumatic event far in her past that has now thrust her uncomfortably to the center a contentious national debate. On the other is Mr. Kavanaugh, a man who has watched a lifetime’s work building a reputation for decency and honor destroyed overnight.
At Thursday’s hearing Ms. Ford told the Senate Judiciary Committee that at a high-school party thirty years ago, Mr. Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge forced her into a bedroom where, she says, Mr. Kavanaugh pinned her down on a bed, attempted to remove her clothes, and placed his hand over her mouth to prevent her from crying out. Ms. Ford said she believed that he intended to rape her and feared that he may accidentally suffocate her.
Mr. Kavanaugh strenuously denied the accusation while taking care not to disparage Ms. Ford. “I am not questioning that Dr. Ford could have been sexually assaulted by someone, someplace at some time,” he said in his testimony. But, “I have never done this. Not to her, or to anyone,” he said.
“I am not questioning that Dr. Ford could have been sexually assaulted by someone, someplace at some time. But, I have never done this. Not to her, or to anyone.” — Brett Kavanaugh.
Ms. Ford came off as a compelling and sympathetic witness. However, there were problems with her account. She could neither recall exactly where the party was, nor when it occurred. She remembers running out of the house after the incident and standing on the sidewalk outside it, but not how she got home or who drove her. And none of the people whom she said were there have corroborated her story. Nevertheless, she said, she was 100% certain that it was Mr. Kavanaugh that attacked her.
Republicans focused much of their fire Thursday on Democrats, and specifically Diane Feinstein, the Committee’s senior Democrat, whom they charged had withheld Ms. Ford’s allegations from the committee until the last minute in what they saw as an attempt to maximize the political damage to Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Ms. Feinstein countered that she was simply honoring Ms. Ford’s desire for anonymity. Yet, her accusations were nevertheless leaked to the media and Republicans held Democrats responsible. Mr. Kavanaugh, in the course of impassioned testimony punctuated by righteous anger, lashed out at Democrats’ political maneuvering.
“This confirmation process has become a national disgrace,” Kavanaugh said. “The Constitution gives the Senate an important role in the confirmation process, but you have replaced advice and consent with search and destroy.”
Ms. Ford’s allegation, he said, “was held in secret for weeks by a Democratic member of this committee and by staff. It would be needed only if you couldn’t take me out on the merits,” Mr. Kavanaugh said. “When it was needed, this allegation was unleashed and publicly deployed over Dr. Ford’s wishes,” he added.
Mr. Kavanaugh also pushed back forcefully on the allegations against him. “All four witnesses who were alleged to be at the event said it didn’t happen including Dr. Ford’s longtime friend Ms. [Leland] Kayser, who said she didn’t know me and that she does not recall ever being at a party with me with or without Dr. Ford,” Mr. Kavanaugh said.
Still, he said “allegations of sexual assault must always be taken seriously, always. Those who make allegations always deserve to be heard. At the same time, the person who is the subject of the allegations also deserves to be heard.”
Among the most poignant moments came as Mr. Kavanaugh, choking back tears, recounted his daughters’ empathy for Ms. Ford. “I intend no ill will to Dr. Ford and her family,” he said. “The other night Ashley and my daughter Liza said their prayers and little Liza, all of 10 years old, said to Ashley, ‘We should pray for the woman.’ That’s a lot of wisdom from a 10-year-old.”
The FBI Investigation
Democrats repeatedly pressed their demand for an FBI investigation into Ms. Ford’s claims, something Republicans saw as purely a stalling tactic. “If you wanted a FBI investigation, you could have come to us,” Lindsay Graham, the Republican Senator from South Carolina said in a fiery rebuke of Democrats. “What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open and hope you win in 2020,” he added.
Thanks to Mr. Flake, the Democrats will get an FBI investigation after all. But, even after the FBI investigates, the question of what happened to Ms. Ford thirty years ago may not be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. It’s unlikely that an FBI investigation into events so long ago will turn up anything conclusive. There is no evidence, beyond Ms. Ford’s testimony, to corroborate her claim and the gaps in Ms. Ford’s memory about details like the time and location of the alleged attack further complicates matters. The FBI will be able to interview witnesses. Yet, all of the people Ms. Ford has identified as being at the party so far have disputed her account. Unless they change their story or new witnesses turn up, the FBI investigation may not add much more certainty.
Emotion and Anguish
For anyone who has followed this drama closely, it’s hard not to feel compassion for the people caught in the middle of it and their families. Ms. Ford’s anguish seemed genuine, Mr. Kavanaugh’s emotion when talking about the effects of all this on his family was moving.
Ms. Ford deserves respect. Her allegations cannot be dismissed lightly and must be taken seriously. But, the grotesque political bloodspot that we are now witnessing is neither respectful of Ms. Ford nor fair to Mr. Kavanaugh. Taking accusations of sexual assault seriously should not be confused with trial by mob. Mr. Kavanaugh deserves respect too. He is, by the account of nearly everyone who knows him well, uncommonly decent and honorable. Like anyone else, he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Partisan resentments have grown so hardened, and the gulf between those who support and oppose Mr. Kavanaugh’s confirmation so wide, that any notions of a fair and impartial confirmation process have been rendered absurd.
At the end of the day, the rancorous debate over the Kavanaugh confirmation has plumbed new depths in the cesspool of our current political moment. Partisan resentments have grown so hardened, and the gulf between those who support and oppose Mr. Kavanaugh’s confirmation so wide, that any notions of a fair and impartial confirmation process have been rendered absurd.
Barring some unanticipated bombshell, Mr. Kavanaugh will likely be confirmed and go on to a long and distinguished career on the Supreme Court. While he will always bear the scars, they will fade over time. But, the effect on the public trust may be more enduring.