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Kavanaugh twist shows rising influence of MeToo

Why We Wrote This

The fact that lawmakers on both sides were quick to say Kavanaugh’s accuser must be heard reflects the power of the #MeToo movement – and the pivotal role of women in US politics. But it’s unclear if the episode will change any minds about his confirmation.

Alex Wroblewski/Reuters
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies during the third day of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 6, 2018.

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Less than 24 hours after Christine Blasey Ford, the woman accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, revealed her identity, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said she should be allowed to have her say. “She should not be ignored or insulted,” Ms. Conway told reporters. “She should be heard.” Ms. Ford, a psychology professor, says she is willing to testify before Congress. Conway, who made clear she was speaking on behalf of the president, urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to hear her testimony under oath. Judge Kavanaugh has also said he is willing to testify. It’s not a reaction one might expect from a president who has faced allegations of sexual misconduct from more than a dozen women and who dismissed taped remarks about groping women as “locker room talk.” But it points to the power of the #MeToo movement – and of women voters, who are expected to play a pivotal role in the upcoming midterm elections. “A lot more people believe the right thing is to believe a woman’s charges, especially when a woman is willing to go public,” says Jim Manley, the former spokesman for retired Democratic majority leader Harry Reid.

“She should not be ignored or insulted. She should be heard.”

That the president’s senior counselor, Kellyanne Conway, swiftly advocated listening to the woman who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault points to the power of the #MeToo movement – and of women in politics.

Just one day after the accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, revealed her identity to The Washington Post, Ms. Conway on Monday said she had it straight from President Trump that Professor Ford should be allowed her say – and with dignity. Ford is willing to appear before Congress, and Conway urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to hear her testimony under oath. Judge Kavanaugh has also said he is willing to testify.

It is not what one might have expected from a president who has faced allegations of sexual misconduct from more than a dozen women and who blew off candid remarks about groping women as “locker room talk.”

“A lot more people believe the right thing is to believe a woman’s charges, especially when a woman is willing to go public,” says Jim Manley, former spokesman for retired Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, when he was Senate majority leader.

Mr. Manley recalls his time as a young staffer in the Senate when Anita Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991. Like Ford, Ms. Hill went public at the last minute. When she testified before the Judiciary Committee, senators on both sides of the all-male panel questioned her credibility. The confirmation went ahead.

“This is different circumstances, occurring in a whole different time,” says Manley, warning about “blowback” if Republicans try to overreach and impugn Ford’s motives for coming forward. “I think that’s going to [tick] off an awful lot of people, including women, who are more prone to vote in this day and age than men are.”

Mistakes versus character flaws

But there is also potential for overreach for the #MeToo movement – and Democrats – if they argue that one incident, allegedly carried out by a drunken 17-year-old Kavanaugh, disqualifies an otherwise stellar legal career and seemingly upright character.

“There’s a difference between making a mistake and having it be your character,” says Cleta Mitchell, a Republican election attorney based in Washington, D.C., and a supporter of Kavanaugh. Even if the allegations are true, she does not believe they should disqualify the nominee, “because I don’t think that’s the kind of life that he’s led.”

According to Ford, the alleged incident took place during the summer in the early 1980s. She says that a small group of students were drinking at a home in suburban Maryland, and that Kavanaugh and a friend, Mark Judge, were heavily intoxicated. When she went to use the bathroom, she claims she was pushed into a bedroom by Kavanaugh, and that he pinned her down and, laughing, tried to take off her clothes. When she tried to call out, he put his hand over her mouth. At one point, she says, Mr. Judge jumped on top of both of them, which caused them all to topple off the bed, enabling her to get free.

Ford did not tell anyone about the incident at the time, but The Washington Post reviewed notes from a therapist she saw in 2012 detailing the incident. (The notes did not mention Kavanaugh by name, but said Ford described being attacked by someone from an elite boys’ school who went on to become a “high-ranking” member of Washington society.)

Kavanaugh has adamantly denied the charges, saying in a statement: “This is a completely false allegation. I have never done anything like what the accuser describes – to her or to anyone.” Judge, the friend who was allegedly involved in the incident, spoke to The Weekly Standard before Ford came forward publicly, and said: “It’s just absolutely nuts. I never saw Brett act that way.”

Politics and #MeToo

John Feehery, a Republican strategist, says the #MeToo movement is not just about justice – it’s also about punishing those who have been in power for a long time. Quoting Justice Thomas from his nomination hearing, Mr. Feehery said this seems like another “high-tech lynching,” this time “of a white Irish Catholic guy.”

Unlike Thomas, who allegedly behaved offensively as an adult and fully sober, “you and I know high school kids. They do stupid stuff. All the time. Especially when they are drunk.” Should that disqualify a person from future employment? he asks.

Feehery is unsure whether there will be a backlash against #MeToo but he and others underscore the politics – and arguably, the double standards – at play in this and other high-stakes instances involving sexual harassment, assault, or other indiscretions.

The left forgives President Bill Clinton despite his affair with a young intern and other allegations of abuse, and it forgives the Democratic lion Ted Kennedy for his complicity in the death of a young woman – because they align on the issues, Feehery points out.

“The right forgives Trump because he promises to be faithful to their causes, if not faithful to his wife.”

Republicans have blasted Democrats for the way in which the accusation came out – at the 11th hour, while for six weeks, the senior Democrat on the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, had a letter from Ford outlining the alleged attack.

Even Manley admits that Feinstein “should have broached this with others on the committee earlier.” Yet, he understands why she didn’t, given the senator’s “cautious” nature and the fact that the writer wanted strict anonymity. How can an accused defend himself from charges of a nameless person?

How this all will play out in detail remains to be seen. Democrats are demanding a thorough investigation by the FBI, because these allegations are new. Republicans want to stay on track – aiming for a confirmation vote before Oct. 1, when the court begins its new term. Judiciary Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, (R) of Iowa, said Monday that he will “continue working on a way to hear her out in an appropriate, precedented, and respectful manner.”

Yet a few Republicans have suggested there may have to be a delay, at least in the Judiciary vote on the nominee – which was scheduled for this Thursday – in order to hear from Ford. Speaking to reporters on Monday, President Trump said, “if it takes a little delay, it’ll take a little delay.”

In the end, “I doubt very seriously any minds will be changed by this,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist and expert on the Senate at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “Unless something else gets dislodged from historical memory” or other women come forward with accusations, “odds are that he will be confirmed.”

Republicans, he says, feel that this is in their grasp and they do not want to do anything to cause things to go off the rails. Given the politics, given energized women voters, given the new climate about sexual harassment, “it’s very important that they give due respect to Dr. Ford.”

Staff writer Linda Feldmann contributed to this story from Washington.

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