With World Watching, GOP Counsel Must Tread Carefully In Ford Questioning

WASHINGTON, DC - Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Thursday September 6, 2018. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
WASHINGTON, DC - Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Thursday September 6, 2018. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
September 27, 2018 6:00 a.m.

The last thing Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee want is a televised Anita Hill redux.

They are taking pains to carefully stage-manage the Thursday hearing in which Christine Blasey Ford will testify about her sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Rather than asking questions themselves, the all-male GOP members of the committee will mostly outsource that responsibility to Arizona sex crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell. Security has been provided to Ford, who received death threats after going public with her allegations.

But the California professor’s allegations are centered around the hyper-sensitive topics of alcohol use and attempted sexual assault, meaning Mitchell will have to tread carefully to avoid appearing to victim-blame or cast Ford as a liar. Attorneys who have represented victims in sexual assault cases told TPM that she will likely make an effort to grill both Ford and Kavanaugh in equal measure.

“This entire show is not for the truth, right, it’s for the show?” D.C. attorney Les Alderman told TPM. “It’s to convince constituents that they’re either justified in voting for the guy or not voting for him. So it’s all about sound-bites and it’s all about the perception of the hearing.”

“If the perception is it’s not fair—he was given softball questions and she was crucified—that’s going to be a problem for Republicans going into the midterms,” Alderman continued. “But if Ms. Mitchell is consistent with her questions of both, then I don’t think there will be a way to attack the process from that standpoint.”

Ford is slated to give her testimony first when the hearing at the Dirksen Senate Building begins at 10 a.m. ET. She will present a statement detailing her allegation that Kavanaugh tried to remove her clothes and force himself on her at a high school party in the summer of 1982. His friend Mark Judge was in the room, alternating between egging Kavanaugh on and telling him to stop, she alleges. Kavanaugh, Ford has alleged, covered her mouth when she tried to scream.

Ford’s lawyers have provided to the committee the sworn affidavits of four people supporting her claims, as well as a copy of a polygraph exam she took this summer.

Those claims have remained very consistent since Ford first went public with her story on Sept. 16. But they are missing key details like the exact date and location where the incident occurred. Though victims of sexual assault often forget these kinds of specifics because of the passage of time or trauma they have suffered, holes in the story allow critics to cast them as dishonest, lawyers say.

“Basically, what you’re looking for is internal consistency in the story,” Paul Mones, an L.A.-based attorney who has represented victims of sexual abuse, told TPM. “And that the level of details is consistent throughout.”

If Ford can’t remember details of the night itself, Mones said, she may be asked about “what else she remembers about that time”—other significant events in the days leading up to or following the party.

Lapses represent the greatest challenge for Ford. For Kavanaugh, it will likely be the mountain of new information that has surfaced just over the past week.

A former Yale Law School classmate has accused him of exposing himself to her at a party, and another woman has alleged that Kavanaugh and his friends participated in a debaucherous high school scene in which women, including her, were routinely used for sex.

Kavanaugh has adamantly denied these new allegations. In a Fox News interview, he even claimed that he was a virgin for “many years” after high school and had never consumed alcohol to the point of blacking out. He also provided a calendar to the Senate Judiciary Committee detailing his activities from that summer.

But a host of former students who attended both high school and law school with Kavanaugh have gone on the record about his history of heavy drinking and the fraternity culture he participated in. Footage has also turned up of Kavanaugh himself joking about his youthful drunken exploits.

“Everybody has a tendency to exaggerate,” Alderman, the D.C. attorney said. “It doesn’t mean you’re lying, it means you’re a human being. One of the things we prep our witnesses on is to stop exaggerating, or be careful about it.”

“From that Fox News interview, he seemed like he didn’t get that message,” Alderman said.

Alderman also brought up the fact that Kavanaugh and his Georgetown Prep friends mentioned a girl named Renate Schroeder in their yearbook pages. While some interpreted the claim as a boast of sexual relations, Kavanaugh and other friends who used the caption said it was just a reference to dates they went on with her.

Alderman said he would focus in on this entry if he was questioning Kavanaugh “because that’s one thing where there’s actual written evidence that contradicts what he’s saying.”

The hearing is limited to questioning of Ford and Kavanaugh. No corroborating witnesses will be called. As of Thursday morning, the committee was still scheduled to hold a confirmation vote for Kavanaugh on Friday.

While President Trump claimed at a Wednesday press conference he “could be persuaded” by Ford’s testimony, the gears still appear to be grinding towards a full Senate vote next week.

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