a senate swayed?

Abaca Press/Tribune News Service Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary panel Thursday.
Abaca Press/Tribune News Service Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary panel Thursday.
Published Sept. 27, 2018

WASHINGTON — Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser faced off Thursday in an extraordinary, emotional day of testimony that ricocheted from a woman's tremulous account of sexual assault to a man's angry, outraged denial, all of which played out for hours before a riveted nation and a riven Senate.

The two very different versions of the truth, unfolding in the heated atmosphere of gender divides, #MeToo and the Trump presidency , could not be reconciled. The testimony skittered from cringeworthy sexual details to accusations and denials of drunken debauchery to one juvenile exchange over flatulence.

Senators must ultimately take sides — and their decisions in the coming days will determine the ideological balance of the Supreme Court for decades.

Immediately after the hearing adjourned, President Donald Trump tweeted that "Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him."

"His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting," the president wrote. "Democrats' search and destroy strategy is disgraceful and this process has been a total sham and effort to delay, obstruct, and resist. The Senate must vote!"

With her voice cracking but her composure intact, the accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, told a rapt Senate panel about the terror she felt on a summer day more than 30 years ago, when, she said, a drunken young Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, tried to rip off her clothes and clapped his hand over her mouth to muffle her cries for help.

"I believed he was going to rape me," she said, adding, "It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was going to accidentally kill me."

A few hours later, Kavanaugh, Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court, delivered a blistering, scorched-earth defense. Speaking through tears at points, he denied he assaulted Ford — "I am innocent of this charge!" — and denounced a partisan "frenzy" bent on destroying his nomination, his family and his good name.

"This confirmation process has become a national disgrace," he said in opening remarks written only 24 hours before. "The Constitution gives the Senate an important role in the confirmation process, but you have replaced 'advice and consent' with 'search and destroy.'?"

It was a striking display by a nominee to the high court, and it stood in stark contrast to Ford, who delivered cautious testimony laced with scientific description of how neurotransmitters code "memories into the hippocampus" to lock trauma-related experience in the brain.

The hearing riveted the nation. Televisions across America — including on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange — were tuned in. Women were calling C-SPAN to share their own experiences of sexual assault.

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But Kavanaugh's fate likely rests with only a handful of undecided senators — Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Jeff Flake of Arizona, chief among them — who had kept their views on the hearing close late into the day.

At least Flake, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, will have to render a decision in short order: Republicans have scheduled a committee vote on Kavanaugh for today, and Republican leaders have said they expect the full Senate to vote next week.

As Ford testified, Republican senators sat in mute witness, forgoing questioning and giving over their time to an outside lawyer, Rachel Mitchell, whose clipped questioning gave the hearing a prosecutorial tone. She seemed to have little success rattling Ford or undermining her story.

During a break in the hearing, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told reporters: "I don't think she's uncredible. I think she an attractive, good witness." Asked for clarity, he said, "In other words, she's pleasing."

Democrats applauded Ford's courage and questioned her gently; when one asked about her strongest memory of the assault, she said it was of Kavanaugh and his friend laughing as they piled on top of her: "The uproarious laughter between the two and having fun at my expense." They afforded Kavanaugh little sympathy.

Asked by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., "Dr. Ford, with what degree of certainty do you believe Judge Kavanaugh assaulted you?" Ford responded unequivocally.

"One hundred percent," she said.

Playing out against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement and just weeks before a midterm election, the testimony evoked strong memories of one of Washington's most memorable judicial confirmations: the 1991 hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment by law professor Anita Hill.

At times it appeared Kavanaugh was channeling Thomas himself, who in 1991 decried a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks" at the hands of Democrats.

"My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed by vicious and false additional allegations," he told the committee. But he vowed never to withdraw.

He directly addressed the portrait painted by Ford as a drunken young man who tried to rape her and muffled her screams as she pleaded for help. "I liked beer. I still like beer. But I did not drink beer to the point of blacking out, and I never sexually assaulted anyone," he said.

Kavanaugh cited the testimony of other witnesses who said they have no memory of the assault and his own "very precise" calendars from the summer of 1982 in an effort to prove that he was never at a party with Ford and that the assault never happened.

He bluntly dismissed accusations raised by two other women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, who say that they either experienced or witnessed sexual misconduct by a drunken Kavanaugh in high school or college.

"The Swetnick thing is a joke," he said under questioning. "That is a farce."

The facts of Ford's story are already well known, but hearing her detail them, with clarity and sometimes confessing that she did not remember specifics, was compelling.

The portrait of the young Kavanaugh painted by Ford and Democrats was a far cry from the image the judge projected at his previous confirmation hearings, where he portrayed himself as a churchgoing father of two daughters and a beloved basketball coach for their teams.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the committee, noted that Kavanaugh has previously made statements that he never "drank so much he couldn't remember what happened." That statement, the senator said, is at odds with one given by Kavanaugh's freshman roommate at Yale, who has said that the young Kavanaugh was "frequently, incoherently drunk," and that when he was, he became "aggressive and belligerent."

Speaking calmly, Ford used her opening statement to recount how she met Kavanaugh, when their social circles at their elite private schools intersected during her freshman or sophomore year, when she was 14 or 15. She said she had been friendly with a classmate of Kavanaugh, who introduced them. "This is how I met Brett Kavanaugh, the boy who sexually assaulted me," she said.

One evening in the summer of 1982, after a day of diving at the Columbia Country Club, she attended what she said was "almost surely a spur of the moment" gathering at a nearby home, she told senators. She said it was clear that Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, had been drinking, and that she had just had one beer. When she went up the narrow staircase to use the restroom, she said, she was pushed from behind into a bedroom.

"Brett and Mark came into the bedroom and locked the door behind them," she said. "There was music playing in the bedroom. It was turned up louder by either Brett or Mark once we were in the room. I was pushed on the bed and Brett got on top of me and he began running his hands over my body and grinding into me. I yelled, hoping that someone downstairs might hear me and I tried to get away from him, but his weight was heavy."

She said Kavanaugh had a hard time removing her clothes because she was wearing a one-piece bathing suit underneath. Eventually, after Judge jumped on top of them and they tumbled off the bed, she was able to escape, she said.

"I ran inside the bathroom and locked the door," she said. "I waited until I heard Brett and Mark leave the bedroom laughing and loudly walked down the narrow stairway, pinballing off the walls on the way down. I waited and when I did not hear them come back up the stairs, I left the bathroom, went down the same stairwell through the living room and left the house. I remember being on the street and feeling this enormous sense of relief that I escaped that house and that Brett and Mark were not coming outside after me."