WASHINGTON – A hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh devolved into a partisan fistfight Thursday as Democrats and Republicans — and Kavanaugh himself — sparred over explosive allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted an acquaintance while both were teenagers.
Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch called the hearing a “national disgrace,” while Texas Sen. John Cornyn said it was the most “embarrassing scandal for the U.S. Senate since the McCarthy hearings” in the 1950s.
Fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Democrats’ treatment of Kavanaugh was the “most despicable thing” he has seen in politics.
On the other side, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called the hearing fundamentally “unfair” to Christine Blasey Ford, a California professor who says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when both were in high school. Kavanaugh denied the allegation. Republicans assigned a female prosecutor to question Ford on their behalf, even though “she’s not on trial,” Gillibrand said.
Gillibrand and other Democrats were outraged that Republicans did not force a high school friend of Kavanaugh and other witnesses to testify under oath. Ford says Kavanaugh friend, Mark Judge, was present when the attack occurred.
The charged atmosphere in the room was heightened by Kavanaugh himself, who delivered what has to rank among the most combative testimonies ever heard in a congressional hearing room.
As partisan as the nominating process has been, so too was the reaction.
In Kavanaugh’s angry and tearful opening statement, supporters saw an expression of the frustration Republicans have felt since Kavanaugh was nominated by President Donald Trump in July.
But Democrats said Kavanaugh’s 3 ½-hour appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee raised more questions than it answered.
Kavanaugh’s testimony “had key gaps in substance and credibility,” said Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and his frequent, angry outbursts “raised questions about his temperament.”
Still, most GOP senators were likely to stick with Kavanaugh, especially without corroborating evidence from Ford to back up her story. Trump and Senate Republicans have resisted Democratic calls for an FBI investigation into Ford’s claims.
While Ford’s testimony was compelling and her countenance likable — Hatch called her “attractive” and a good witness — her testimony did not appear to dramatically alter the political dynamic on his confirmation vote.
The outcome largely sits where it has for weeks, on the shoulders of the few Republican senators who have not indicated how they will vote: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Jeff Flake of Arizona. But other senators already in the “yes” column could change their minds.
Republicans control the Senate 51-49. If all Democrats vote against Kavanaugh, they can lose only one vote and still confirm him, with Vice President Mike Pence expected to cast the decisive vote in the event of a tie.
Trump made clear he is sticking with Kavanaugh, tweeting immediately after the hearing that Kavanaugh’s testimony was “powerful, honest and riveting.”
He called Democrats’ “search and destroy strategy” disgraceful and said the process “has been a total sham and effort to delay, obstruct and resist.”
Gillibrand, a longtime advocate for survivors of sexual violence, said the message Republicans are sending to sexual assault survivors — through the hearing and their support for Kavanaugh — is, “We don’t believe you, your voice doesn’t matter and we don’t value you.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, pressed Kavanaugh about his high school yearbook and the “drinking” and “sexual exploits” it mentions.
After Kavanaugh talked about how he “busted his butt” on academics and played sports in high school, Leahy said: “We got a filibuster but not a single answer.” Leahy said after the hearing that Kavanaugh’s answers were “well-rehearsed.”
Graham blamed Democrats for the hearing’s partisan nature, saying they sat on allegations against Kavanaugh for weeks and then sprung them on the nominee at the last minute in a desperate attempt to prevent his confirmation.
Democrats’ tactics were “the most unethical sham,” Graham said in a fiery speech.
Hatch said the hearing was “worse” than the 1991 hearing for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — which Hatch also participated in and which led to a surge in the number of women elected to Congress the next year.
“I didn’t think it could get any worse than that,” the veteran lawmaker told Kavanaugh. “This is a national disgrace, the way you’re being treated.”
During her testimony, Ford, now 51, said of Kavanaugh, “I believed he was going to rape me.” Ford said she was “100 percent” certain a drunken Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, tried to remove her clothes and clapped a hand over her mouth as she tried to yell for help.
Kavanaugh said he did not question that Ford was assaulted, but said, “I have never done this to her or to anyone.”
Several women in the audience stood up when Ford finished testifying after more than four hours and said loudly, “Thank you, Dr. Ford!”
“In the end there is likely to be as much doubt as certainty going out of this room today,” said Flake, one of the few undecided senators.
He called for something rarely seen in the Senate: “humility.”