Ford was highly believable but Kavanaugh could still get on the Supreme Court

Now we know what a 15-year-old girl experiences when she fears a boy could rape her. 

In a sweet, vulnerable voice, cradling her comfort cup of coffee, often in tears, Christine Blasey Ford took the Senate Judiciary Committee and the nation back to a terrifying night in a bedroom in a home in the Bethesda/Chevy Chase area of Maryland in the 1980s.

Her testimony as to how Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, then 17 years old and drunk, allegedly tried to rape her in that bedroom and smothered her cries to the point she thought she might suffocate was viscerally emotional.

ADVERTISEMENT

Ford’s most powerful moment came when she was asked to describe the strongest memory she had of that night. Her response was heart-rending and enraging. It was, she contended, the “uproarious laughter” of Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, who she said was also present, “having fun at my expense.”

Listening to Ford’s account was a profoundly moving experience. She had no motive to give false testimony — in fact she asked the FBI to investigate her own allegations — she displayed no partisan bias, and her level of detail, both what she could recall and what she couldn’t, was credible.

The cross-examination of Ford by committee counsel Rachel Mitchell, an Arizona sex crimes prosecutor, was polite, professional and ineffectual. Ford’s sincerity and presence of mind blunted the cross-examination, but in fairness Mitchell was handicapped by the format. Because the Republican senators had ceded their time to her, every five minutes she was interrupted by a Democratic senator taking his or her turn to ask questions supportive of Ford.

Nonetheless, Republicans may have gotten what they needed from Kavanaugh, who testified after Ford. His testimony was nowhere near as dignified as Ford’s; in fact, it was unseemly for a prospective Supreme Court justice.

Kavanaugh was angry, tearful and self-pitying and highly partisan and combative with Democratic senators. He called the hearings a “circus,” appeared to prophesy a grim future for the United States if he isn’t confirmed, and claimed to be a victim of “revenge on behalf of the Clintons” for the Democrats’ loss in the 2016 election. 

As to Ford’s allegations, Kavanaugh took a more nuanced approach by trying to discredit her testimony without appearing to attack her credibility directly. Ford “may have been sexually assaulted” by someone, Kavanaugh testified, but if so it wasn’t him. He cited personal calendar entries as support, although he conceded that the entries were not dispositive by themselves.

Notably, Kavanaugh did not explain how Ford could have been mistaken about the identity of her assailant if she was otherwise truthful in her account of the assault and its details.

Kavanaugh may have been the aggressive nominee Republicans, especially President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussian sanctions will boomerang States, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press MORE, evidently wanted, although he — and the Supreme Court if he is confirmed — paid a huge price in dignity. But it remains to be seen whether he gave undecided Republicans, reported to include Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Toward 'Super Tuesday' — momentum, money and delegates Trump unleashed: President moves with a free hand post-impeachment MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' Ocasio-Cortez blasts Trump as 'corrupt' for blocking Global Entry for New Yorkers MORE (Alaska), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeMcSally launches 2020 campaign Sinema will vote to convict Trump Senate drama surrounding Trump trial starts to fizzle MORE (Ariz.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerMcConnell, Romney vie for influence over Trump's trial RNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight MORE (Tenn.), a reasonable basis for discarding Ford’s impressive testimony.

Republicans have two key arguments to keep their caucus in line and to offer voters who might be upset if Kavanaugh is confirmed.

The first is Democratic perfidy in withholding Ford’s allegations until the end of the confirmation hearings, a theme Kavanaugh repeatedly emphasized. But that’s an inside-the-Beltway point that doesn’t address Ford’s factual testimony. Democrats can plausibly point to Ford’s initial request for confidentiality, which she confirmed making, as the reason for the delay.

The second is that this is a “he said, she said” stand-off and therefore Kavanaugh should be confirmed based on the presumption of innocence and the lack of eyewitness corroboration of Ford. The problem here is that there is a reported eyewitness, Mark Judge, who has veered in past statements from saying that he has “no recollection” of the assault to denying that it occurred and who declined to appear voluntarily at the hearings. Unless he testifies under oath and is asked probing questions there is no way to know where he might ultimately come out — but Republicans refused to subpoena him.

The undecided Republican senators face the unpalatable choice of thwarting the Republican Party’s paramount political priority or voting to confirm to the Supreme Court a man who has been credibly accused of sexual assault but without seeking sworn testimony from the only eyewitness. If the latter, given Ford’s persuasive testimony, a lot of voters, especially women, could be very, very angry.

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.