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Republicans shift course after outside counsel falters

Republicans shift course after outside counsel falters

Senate Republicans on Thursday abandoned using the outside prosecutor they had hired to question both Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, underscoring what many observers said was a major GOP misstep by relying on the specialist during the first part of the hearing.

“I think the Republicans made a grave error, not necessarily in choosing Mrs. Mitchell, but in having her craft her questioning the way she did," Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano said on Fox News after Ford’s testimony.

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Rachel Mitchell, an Arizona prosecutor who specializes in sex crimes, tried to chip away at Ford’s explosive allegation that a drunken Kavanaugh pinned her down to a bed and groped her at a party in the early 1980s when the two of them were high school students in Maryland. She questioned the Palo Alto University professor about the specifics of her account, her mental health and her motives for coming forward.

Senators on both sides of the aisle said Ford came off as a credible in her testimony, an indication that Mitchell may not have been effective from the GOP’s perspective.

“I found no reason to find her not credible,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCongress braces for high-drama lame duck Trump's shortlist for attorney general takes shape Beto lost but Texas Democrats have a lot to celebrate MORE (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters after Ford’s testimony. “There are obviously gaps in her story. Obviously we know people who are traumatized have those sort of gaps.”

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: What the midterms mean for defense panels | Pompeo cancels North Korea meeting | Trump eyes Kim summit in early 2019 | Pentagon drops name for border mission Five takeaways from a divisive midterm election GOP to retain Senate majority MORE (D-Va.) highlighted Ford's answer to Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyDem senators want hearing on funding for detained migrant children Dem senators request classified briefing on Khashoggi Congress raises pressure on Saudi Arabia MORE's question about what her strongest memory was of the alleged incident.

Ford told Leahy that she remembers Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, laughing.

Kaine said that detail matches an aspect of the sexual assault allegations brought by Deborah Ramirez against Kavanaugh.

"If you think about the story of Dr. Ford and Deborah Ramirez’s story ... the elements of drinking, multiple men in the room and assaulting somebody while you’re laughing at them -- that is the element that is present in both of these stories of these very different people, in different places at different times," he said.

"It’s almost like this was abusing a woman to impress the other guys around and that similarity in both of these stories is a very powerful kind of corroboration," Kaine added.

But when it was Kavanaugh’s turn in the hot seat, several Republican senators sidelined Mitchell, and in doing so changed the tone of the hearing.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamElection Countdown: Florida braces for volatile recount | Counties race to finish machine recount | Trump ramps up attacks | Abrams files new lawsuit in Georgia | 2020 to be new headache for Schumer | Why California counts its ballots so slowly Trump, California battle over climate and cause of fires Schumer’s headaches to multiply in next Congress MORE (R-S.C.) was the first GOP committee member to address Kavanaugh directly. He also raised his voice to blast Democrats, saying they held onto Ford’s sexual assault allegation until the committee was about to vote on his confirmation.

“Boy, you all want power. God, I hope you never get it,” he said, turning red while pointing his finger angrily at Democratic members. “I hope the American people can see through this sham -- that you knew about it and you held it.”

Several other Republican members followed suit, including Cornyn and Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchCongress braces for high-drama lame duck Trump to award Medal of Freedom to Babe Ruth, Elvis, Scalia, Hatch How much power do states have? Supreme Court holds the answer MORE (Utah), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeCongress must make sentencing reform priority for public safety MyPillow CEO to attend White House opioid discussion Congress raises pressure on Saudi Arabia MORE (Utah), Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseElection Countdown: Arizona Senate race still too close to call | Florida vote tally fight heats up | Trump calls for Abrams to 'move on' Flake not ruling out 2020 run against Trump Parties start gaming out 2020 battleground MORE (Neb.) and Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoWaters defends planned probe of Trump finances after GOP backlash Grassley to make chairmanship decision after meeting with colleagues next week Controversial Trump judicial nominee advances after two senators attend hearing MORE (Idaho).

When asked later why he posed his own questions instead of deferring to Mitchell, Graham said, “I was ready to have my two sense worth about how this process has been handled.”

Even Mitchell appeared to question her own effectiveness, asking if Ford had educated herself on the best way to get to memory and the truth in terms of interviewing victims of trauma.

Ford said she didn’t understand the question and asked, “For me interviewing victims of trauma?”

Mitchell explained she was asking Ford if she knows what the best practices are for interviewing victims of trauma. Ford said no.

“Would you believe me if I told you that there’s no study that says that this setting, in five-minute increments, is the best way to do that?” she asked Ford at the end.

Her line of questioning was mocked by some legal experts.

“Mitchell ends by essentially saying this whole proceeding is crap. Strong finish,” former U.S. Attorney Preet BhararaPreetinder (Preet) Singh BhararaGOP senator suspects Schumer of being behind release of Ford letter Preet Bharara questions whether Trump will respect ‘presidential alert’ system Republicans shift course after outside counsel falters MORE tweeted.

Others on social media suggested that Mitchell may have helped Ford’s case.

“Let me revise my point. It was the better of bad choices to bring Mitchell in to do the questioning,” tweeted David Axelrod, a CNN senior political commentator who was a senior adviser to former President Obama. “But in many ways, she has unwittingly made Ford a MORE credible and sympathetic witness.”

Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney who now teaches at the University of California in both San Diego and Los Angeles, said he didn’t think Mitchell’s questioning worked, partly because the format of the hearing allowed Democrats to interrupt every five minutes with broad re-assertions of her allegations.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea, per se, for someone to be asking questions on the committee’s behalf, but having one side doing it comes off as partisan,” he said.

During a break Thursday afternoon, Graham told reporters that Mitchell was doing fine.

“You got an emotional allegation, you got an emotional defense so you got to figure out what’s credible,” he said before Kavanaugh’s testimony began. “The burden of proof is not on the man being accused or the woman being accused. So what I’m looking for is: Do I know any more about detail than I knew before?”

Graham said he thought something happened to Ford somewhere in her life, but he's not sure it happened somewhere in Maryland in the summer of 1982.

"And I think it’ll be very clear here in a few minutes that the people named don’t corroborate it," he added.

Some people thought Mitchell was tougher on Kavanaugh than on Ford. Mitchell questioned him about his drinking habits and sexual behavior.

“What do you consider to be too many beers?” she asked.

Kavanaugh said he didn’t know.

“Whatever the chart says,” he responded.

She also asked if he ever woke up in high school after drinking with his clothes in a different condition or fewer clothes on than when he went to sleep or passed out.

"No," Kavanaugh said.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham said on Twitter that whoever recommended Mitchell should be fired.

“The prosecutor Mitchell is being tougher on Judge Kavanaugh than she was on Dr Ford. Whoever recommended her shd never work in GOP politics again,” she tweeted.

She also said: “Don’t let that Mitchell woman back -- she was not at all effective. This is a performance not a legal seminar.”

Jordain Carney contributed.