It has been a dizzying 10 days since Christine Blasey Ford went public with her allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, putting into serious doubt what initially looked like a smooth ride to confirmation.
The intervening days have been filled with tales of prep-school debauchery, denials of those tales, lawyers, polygraph tests, dueling letters of support from friends and classmates of the accused and the accuser, and death threats directed at Ford, Kavanaugh, their families, the senators interviewing them and the friends who have backed their respective accounts.
All of it has led to Thursday’s historic hearing in the Dirksen Senate office building, where Ford will appear publicly for the first time to tell her story and Kavanaugh will attempt to clear his name.
Republican leaders are still vowing to confirm Kavanaugh to the high court even though it’s not certain yet if they have the votes to do so, while Democrats remain committed to defeating Kavanaugh—but with a renewed sense of purpose after Ford and at least two other women have accused him of various forms of sexual misconduct.
Instead of embracing the partisan theatrics and made-for-TV presidential campaign moments that characterized the initial hearings, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are aiming to keep the spotlight on Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a high-school party, and ensure that she comes off as credible. That means avoiding the appearance of a political circus that could undermine Ford’s claims, which Kavanaugh has categorically denied.
According to several interviews with senators and aides, Democrats plan to make strategic objections during the hearing to what they view as a “sham” process spearheaded by the Republican majority intended to dismiss the sexual-assault allegations and ensure Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
“My expectation is that Democrats will conduct themselves in a way that is respectful of Dr. Ford’s testimony and allegations,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a member of the judiciary committee, told The Daily Beast. “But we’ll also vigorously challenge some of the ways in which this hearing has been set up and the way it has proceeded. The way to do that is to not interrupt Dr. Ford with those more partisan points contesting the ground rules of the hearing. And to [instead make those contentions] either before or after she testifies.”
Less than five minutes into Kavanaugh’s first confirmation hearing earlier this month, before Ford’s allegations became public, Democrats unleashed on their GOP counterparts, strategically interrupting the hearing to press for more documents relating to the nominee’s tenure in the Bush White House. Republican senators accused Democrats of grandstanding and, in some cases, attempting to launch their 2020 presidential campaigns.
Democrats are actively trying to avoid a re-run of that—if only to ensure that they aren’t criticized for using an alleged sexual-assault victim to advance political goals. Instead, Coons said, they will focus on the recollections of Kavanaugh in the 1980s that contrast starkly with the image of the nominee as a dedicated family man today. To do that, they are expected to lean heavily on the former prosecutors who sit on the Democratic side of the committee, according to several people familiar with the strategy.
“I think it is completely possible that he is someone who, today, is a regular volunteer with his parish at homeless shelters, a great coach to his daughter’s basketball team, a good husband, father, and neighbor,” Coons said. “It’s also possible that when younger he was someone who became aggressive and drank to excess and may well have engaged in activity that should be disqualifying for a justice.”
Coons continued, “The challenge for the committee is to discern whether he is only one, or he is both. It’s clear, I think, from his record, that he was as much of a frat boy as a younger man as [he was] a choirboy. And the question is, what does that mean?”
The committee’s Republicans, who are all men, have projected defiance in recent days as Kavanaugh gets put through the wringer. They plan to cede much of their time during the hearing to Rachel Mitchell, a prosecutor with experience in sexual-misconduct cases who was hired to avoid the potentially poor optics of a panel of men interrogating an alleged sexual-assault victim. Republicans have said the outside counsel would “de-politicize” the hearing because it would prevent individual senators from trying to score political points.
“I’m not preparing like I do for a confirmation hearing. I’m not preparing questions,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), a member of the judiciary committee. “I’m going to be listening very carefully.”
Ford’s legal team said late Wednesday that the committee has not yet responded to its request to meet with Mitchell ahead of the hearing. The attorneys also said they were unsure whether Kavanaugh’s team had been given the opportunity to meet with the outside counsel. They added that Ford’s “preparation with her lawyers has gone well” and “she’s ready for tomorrow.”
As both sides were prepared on Wednesday for the hearing, attorney Michael Avenatti rolled a grenade into the confirmation fight, revealing that he represents a third accuser, Julie Swetnick, who leveled horrific allegations against Kavanaugh involving “gang rape,” which he denies.
Asked about the bombshell claims, Kennedy said Avenatti would be contacted by the committee in order to have his client interviewed by staff investigators.
In interviews with committee investigators, Kavanaugh vehemently denied all three allegations, according to transcripts released Wednesday night.
“I've never participated in a gang rape. I've never participated in sexual activity with more than one woman present and me,” Kavanaugh said, referring to Swetnick’s allegations.
“I've never had a threesome or more than a threesome,” he added.
The transcript also revealed a fourth and a fifth allegation of misconduct—one sent anonymously to Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), and the other sent anonymously to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).
The Colorado letter detailed an account from 1998 alleging that Kavanaugh shoved a woman into a wall after getting drunk at a bar. The Rhode Island letter alleged that he and his friend Mark Judge raped a woman while on a boat in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1985. Kavanaugh denied both allegations.
The new allegations have sent most senators back to their partisan battle stations. Democrats have renewed their calls for an FBI probe with some demanding that Kavanaugh withdraw from consideration, as Republicans told reporters to consider the source of some of the allegations: Avenatti, who represents Stormy Daniels in her lawsuit against President Donald Trump and who is actively considering a presidential bid in 2020.
“The lawyer to porn stars has just taken this debacle to an even lower level. I hope people will be highly suspicious of this allegation presented by Michael Avenatti,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of the judiciary committee, said in a statement. “... If Republicans bail out on this good man because of the smears and character assassination perpetrated by Michael Avenatti, we deserve our fate.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the chairman of the judiciary committee, dismissed Avenatti, but said the celebrity attorney’s client would be taken seriously by the committee.
“It seems to me that he wants to protect people that are involved in pornography, and he’s running for president,” Grassley told The Daily Beast. “And I don’t know what his motivations are. I don’t know what his reputation as a lawyer is. How can I draw any conclusions? But really, what’s important here isn’t the lawyer, [it’s] the person that claims she has been harmed.”
Grassley left the door open to an additional hearing with Swetnick or other accusers, but said he would make that determination after Ford’s testimony on Thursday. The committee has teed up a confirmation vote for Friday morning, but Grassley has said the vote will only take place if the committee is “ready” to do so.
Meanwhile, the four GOP senators considered to be the “swing” votes have indicated that their decision on Kavanaugh’s nomination will lean heavily on both Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s testimonies on Thursday. If Democrats unite to reject the nominee, it would take just two Republican “no” votes to sink his nomination.
“All I can say is, I’ve cleared my schedule tomorrow,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), one of those lawmakers who remains on the fence. “I plan on watching the hearing from beginning to finish.”