Senate Republicans are taking aggressive measures to avoid an Anita Hill redux as the Judiciary Committee prepares for a hearing on the sexual assault allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
They’re off to a shaky start, if the past 24 hours is any indication.
Already, Republicans supportive of Kavanaugh have downplayed the severity of Christine Blasey Ford’s story. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) questioned Ford’s motives. Others are frustrated that she has yet to agree to testify before the panel after asking for a chance to be heard, and wonder if she shows up whether the committee will truly be left with enough information to make a decision.
“The question is 36 years after the alleged incident. This is why, in criminal cases, we have statute of limitations,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “You’re simply not going to have enough witnesses or documents or other evidence to be able to, I think, reach a conclusive decision about the allegations.”
When Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee 27 years ago, its members tore at her credibility in terms so deeply personal that the hearing is now regarded as an embarrassment for the chamber. This time, their conduct could determine not just the public’s perception of their party but whether Kavanaugh wins the 50 votes needed to sit on the high court.
Exacerbating their challenge is the fact that every Republican on the panel is male — an echo of the all-male dais that questioned Hill in 1991. And all of the committee’s Republicans except for Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have been diehard Kavanaugh supporters, raising questions about how seriously they’ll take her testimony.
To head off the potentially bad optics of older white men questioning a woman about alleged sexual assault, Republicans are considering having an independent outside lawyer question Ford alongside senators. They’re also carefully controlling the hearing, allowing testimony from no witnesses other than Kavanaugh and Ford, and declining Democratic calls for the FBI to investigate Ford’s claim further.
Cornyn, a senior Judiciary member, said his party would “treat [Ford] with respect and dignity” to avoid a repeat of the Anita Hill hearing. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he expects the committee will be “fair” to Ford.
Democrats have a different expectation.
“It’s going to be a shitshow,” said one Democratic senator.
Asked about the potential for a GOP pile-on if Ford testifies, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) would only say: “That’s the Republicans’ problem.”
Republicans are already taking shots at Ford. Graham questioned why she waited months after contacting The Washington Post and her Democratic representative in Congress to go public. He also expressed skepticism about some of the details of her story, including why she took a lie detector test administered by a former FBI agent.
“I don’t know when she took the polygraph. I don’t know who paid for it. I don’t know when she hired the lawyer. I don’t know who paid for it,” Graham said. “But if you didn’t want to go public why are you buying a polygraph and why are you hiring a lawyer? All those things will come out.”
Graham made similar comments about Ford on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, a favorite forum for conservatives.
A top outside surrogate for Kavanaugh, meanwhile, was dubious of what sort of behavior Ford is actually alleging. Ford told the Washington Post that Kavanaugh groped her and covered her mouth while forcing himself on her.
“Her allegations cover a whole range of conduct, from boorishness to rough horseplay to actual attempted rape,” Judicial Crisis Network chief counsel Carrie Severino said on CNN. “There’s 35 years of memory that we’re trying to play with here. But the behavior she describes could describe a whole range of things.”
Few other Republicans have joined them, training their fire instead on Senate Democrats and charging they are merely trying to disrupt the nomination at the last minute.
All 10 Democrats on the Judiciary Committee warned the GOP Tuesday that pushing ahead with a hearing before Ford has agreed to appear “repeat[s] mistakes of the past,” a nod to Hill.
Democrats don’t have the issue of an all-male Judiciary membership. Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, both former prosecutors, are among the party’s four women who sit on the panel.
“It obviously would be better if there were some Republican women. But I’m not a member of the committee, so I do not expect to be sitting with the committee,” added Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, one of three current Judiciary members who sat on the committee during the Hill hearings, dismissed questions about the potential political risk of 11 Republican men grilling Ford.
“You’re talking about history,” Grassley said. “We’re not looking back, we’re looking forward.”
His Republican colleagues concurred.
“You all are enjoying that story[line] quite a bit,” Cornyn told reporters, but “in the end we’re going to have a job to do and we’re going to do it.”
One GOP senator said the entire purpose of the Monday hearing is to satisfy three undecided Republicans, including Collins and Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Jeff Flake of Arizona — as well as four undecided Democrats whom Republicans believe could vote for Kavanaugh.
“My hope is that all will be respectful, respectful of Dr. Ford and respectful of Judge Kavanaugh,” Murkowski said Tuesday.
“The Senate Judiciary Committee has a chance to redeem itself from the circus-like atmosphere of a couple weeks ago,” said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), referring to days of disruptive protests by liberal activists. He added: “If I believe that these allegations are true, then I think it would be a disqualifying factor.”
Although both Ford and Hill’s stories weren’t aired publicly until after the initial round of Supreme Court confirmation hearings concluded, the Kavanaugh flap is playing out differently from the 1991 sexual harassment allegations against now-Justice Clarence Thomas in several important ways.
Hill’s hearings included 22 outside witnesses and an FBI investigation in advance of her testimony, which Democrats have pointed to in lamenting the FBI move to add the Ford allegation to Kavanaugh’s background file rather than conduct a separate inquiry.
One key witness, Mark Judge, whom Ford said was in the room at the time of the alleged assault, is refusing to testify before the panel. Grassley’s spokesman said Tuesday, however, that aides have “made contact with other alleged witnesses based on the Washington Post’s reporting.” Grassley’s office would not say late Tuesday which other individuals that Republicans have contacted.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the FBI should be devoting more resources to the decades-old Kavanaugh charges than it did to Hill’s allegations against Thomas. “The Hill case involved a two-day FBI investigation,” he said. “They asked for two weeks, but the committee went ahead anyway.”
The Justice Department said in a Monday night statement, however, that the FBI’s handling of the issue comports with a 2010 memo that governs background checks. “The allegation does not involve any potential federal crime,” a DOJ spokesperson said..
Democrats’ frustration over the FBI’s handling of Ford’s allegation isn’t deterring at least some of them from participating in Monday’s planned hearing. Both Durbin and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said they expect to attend, even if it’s just Kavanaugh testifying, though they prefer more witness and an FBI investigation.
“I do think there are now questions that are appropriate for us to ask Judge Kavanaugh,” Coons said.
Nolan McCaskill contributed to this report.