The battle to elevate Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court culminated on Thursday in an emotional, raw, and at times angry hearing that was about much more than the charges of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh.
Before Kavanaugh and his accuser Christine Blasey Ford set foot in room 226 of the Dirksen Senate office building, which was virtually locked down due to concerns about the safety of both witnesses, it was clear that partisanship had overwhelmed basic decency—and questions as to whether there would ever be a way to fix it.
It was a hearing about Kavanaugh and Ford, but their fates were also wrapped up in the #MeToo movement, the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, the midterm elections and even the 2020 presidential campaign.
The testimonies could not have been more diametrically opposed: a calm, fearful, almost apologetic woman recounting the most horrifying moment of her life for everyone to see, versus an admittedly angry man who warned that what happened to him would have negative ramifications for decades to come.
What played out over the next nine hours was unlike any Senate hearing in recent memory—with tears, anger, fear and pain on full display as lawmakers and the nation looked on.
Ford began by telling the Senate Judiciary Committee that she was “terrified” to come forward but felt a civic duty to tell her story about a man who was poised for a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.
She described Kavanaugh as “the boy who sexually assaulted me” when they were both in high school, and recounted vivid details: how she was pushed from behind into a second-floor bedroom, how Kavanaugh jumped on her and began to grope her through her clothes—a one-piece bathing suit—and how Mark Judge, Kavanaugh’s friend, stood by, alternating between egging him on and telling him to stop.
As she fought, she said, the boys drunkenly laughed.
When she tried to scream, she said, Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth.
“I believed he was going to rape me,” she said, tearing up as she recalled the alleged incident.
“This was what terrified me the most, and has had the most lasting impact on my life,” she said. “It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.”
After 18 minutes, Ford finished her statement with a humorous plea for “caffeine” which was quickly delivered by a tearful Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who left the dais to hand her a cup of coffee. Actress Alyssa Milano and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who sat in the visitors seats behind Ford, also wiped away tears.
Ford’s testimony was quiet, measured, and apolitical—and it left Republicans silent as they exited the hearing room awaiting Kavanaugh’s rebuttal.
In his tearful, defiant opening statement, which lasted close to an hour, Kavanaugh took a different approach, adopting many of the arguments used by Republicans and President Donald Trump in recent days to fight back against the allegations. The nominee accused Democrats of launching a “calculated and orchestrated political hit” fueled by “anger at Trump” over the 2016 election. The former aide to President Clinton prosecutor Kenneth Starr also intimated that Ford’s and other women’s allegations were driven by “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.”
Kavanaugh again denied Ford’s and all other allegations of sexual misconduct, but was careful not to rope Ford into his attacks on the process and the committee. He suggested that Ford was likely a victim of sexual assault—just not by him. Ford had said she was “100 percent” sure that it was Kavanaugh.
Three weeks ago at his initial confirmation hearing, Kavanaugh had brushed aside questions about his partisan tendencies, eschewing the mud-slinging that has characterized Washington under the Trump presidency.
It was clear on Thursday that that ship had sailed, and that political tribalism had now reached its way to a federal judge who just weeks before had professed the ideals of independence and open-mindedness.
Kavanaugh was angry, emotional, and political. He had come to fight and, in the process, shore up his credibility with the president.
“I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process,” he said. “You have tried hard. You’ve given it your all. No one can question your efforts. Your coordinated and well-funded efforts to destroy my good name and destroyed my family will not drag me out.”
Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) began to cry as Kavanaugh emotionally recounted how difficult it was for him to address the allegations with his family, in particular his 10-year-old daughter.
Republican senators quickly followed Kavanaugh’s defiant lead, essentially abandoning Rachel Mitchell, the Arizona prosecutor whom the committee hired to handle Republicans’ questioning of Ford and, ostensibly, Kavanaugh.
A source familiar with the strategy said Republicans were becoming antsy that Mitchell was focusing more on eliciting information out of Kavanaugh, as Republicans felt it was increasingly necessary to attack Democrats and uplift Kavanaugh.
Graham was the first Republican—aside from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the chairman of the judiciary committee—to question a witness on Thursday. But his remarks amounted to more of a diatribe against his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
“To my Republican colleagues: if you vote ‘no,’ you’re legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time of politics,” Graham said after he accused Democrats of trying to assassinate Kavanaugh’s character in order to delay the nomination until after the midterm elections.
“What you want to do is destroy this guy's life, hold this seat hope and hope you win in 2020,” Graham said. “This the most unethical scam since I've been in politics.”
The South Carolina lawmaker also became visibly frustrated a number of times while others were speaking. When Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) kept talking after his five minutes had expired, Graham yelled across the dais: “Time is up!”
The lack of comity extended to several exchanges between the nominee and Democratic senators.
At one point, after Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) questioned Kavanaugh’s drinking habits, he shot back, asking: “You’re asking about [an alcohol-induced] blackout, I don’t know, have you?”
“Could you answer the question, judge?” she responded, taken aback by his response. “So, you have, that’s not happened? Is that your answer?”
“Yeah, and I’m curious if you have,” he responded.
“I have no drinking problem, judge,” she replied.
Kavanaugh later apologized for the exchange.
Near the end of the hearing, it was clear he had done enough to win the confidence of most of the panel’s Republicans, who one by one backed up Kavanaugh’s claims that the allegations against him are part of a political hit with no basis in fact.
“You’re the first major target of a new strategy that’s developed here,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) said. “It’s not advise and consent. It’s search and destroy.”
If that was the strategy, it failed in the near-term. After all of the emotion and tumult, this hearing ended just as the last one did: with a committee vote scheduled and a confirmation vote around the corner.