shadow

Kavanaugh hearings: Amid new charges, a call for humanity and open minds

Why We Wrote This

As explosive new allegations emerged against US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, there are signs that many Americans don't trust either side’s narrative.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Protesters with Women's March and others gather in front of the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. A second allegation of sexual misconduct has emerged against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a development that has further imperiled his nomination to the Supreme Court, forced the White House and Senate Republicans onto the defensive and fueled calls from Democrats to postpone further action on his confirmation. President Donald Trump is so far standing by his nominee.

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Even before today’s revelations of a third woman accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a teen, 58 percent of Americans said they planned to watch Thursday’s planned Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Mr. Kavanaugh and the first woman to accuse him of assault, Christine Blasey Ford. Both sides are accusing the other of playing partisan politics and toying with people’s lives in the name of brinkmanship. The outcome remains uncertain, and the political risks for both sides could not be higher, with both the balance of the Supreme Court and the looming midterms. Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a “never Trumper” who sometimes serves as the conscience of conservatism in the Senate, spoke on the Senate floor of the humanity of the two witnesses scheduled to appear at Thursday’s high-stakes hearing – both of whom have received death threats, as has Senator Flake. “We sometimes seem intent on stripping people of their humanity so that we might more easily denigrate or defame them…. We seem sometimes even to enjoy it,” he said. He urged his colleagues to have “open minds,” listen, and “seek the truth in good faith.”

Over the past week and a half, the course of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination has gone from a glide path to something that resembles a roller coaster.

Wednesday morning, that roller coaster went into a vertical drop.

Michael Avenatti – the lawyer best known for representing adult film star Stormy Daniels in her suit against President Trump – released a sworn affidavit from a woman alleging that she saw Mr. Kavanaugh and other boys “spike the punch” with drugs or grain alcohol at house parties in the 1980s so that girls could be “gang raped” by a “train” of boys. The woman, Julie Swetnick, says she has a “firm recollection” of Kavanaugh and other teenage boys “lined up outside rooms at many of these parties waiting for their ‘turn’ with a girl.” She says she herself was “gang raped” at such a party where Kavanaugh was present, after being drugged, she believes, with Quaaludes or something similar.

Kavanaugh called the allegations “ridiculous and from ‘The Twilight Zone.’ ” In a statement, he said: “I don’t know who this is, and this never happened.”

Even before Wednesday’s revelations, 58 percent of Americans said they planned to watch Thursday’s planned Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Kavanaugh and the first woman to accuse him of sexual misconduct as a teen, Christine Blasey Ford. As of this morning, more Americans were unsure whom to believe – 42 percent – than the roughly one-third who believe Dr. Ford and the quarter who believe Kavanaugh, according to a new poll from NPR, “PBS NewsHour,” and Marist University. Both Republicans and Democrats are accusing the other of playing partisan politics and toying with people’s lives in the name of brinkmanship. The outcome remains uncertain, and the political risks for both sides could not be higher, with both the balance of the Supreme Court and the looming midterm elections.

In the Senate, the tension is palpable.

On Wednesday morning, reporters swarmed around Senate Judiciary Committee member Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, eager to ask him about the latest confirmation bombshell.

Senator Hatch’s spokesman kept trying to move the towering octogenarian along, telling him he was late, as reporters peppered him with questions. “Everybody shut up!” Hatch barked, standing still to speak with the reporters. Then adding, “I’m not in a good mood.”

Later, Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a fellow Mormon and “never Trumper” who sometimes serves as the conscience of conservatism in the Senate, cut through the tense atmosphere. In a speech on the Senate floor, he reminded senators of the humanity of the two witnesses who are scheduled to appear at Thursday’s high-stakes confirmation hearing – both of whom have received death threats, along with Senator Flake.

“We sometimes seem intent on stripping people of their humanity so that we might more easily denigrate or defame them, or put them through the grinder that our politics requires. We seem sometimes even to enjoy it,” he said. He urged his colleagues to have “open minds,” listen, and “seek the truth in good faith.”

But he did not go so far as to call for an investigation of allegations, which now include three women, nor did he suggest postponing Thursday’s hearing or even withdrawing the nomination of Kavanaugh – all of which Democrats demanded in light of snowballing accusations against Kavanaugh in his high school and college years. 

Ms. Swetnick’s statement does not implicate Kavanaugh in her own alleged rape. She writes that, at more than 10 parties between 1981 to 1983, she observed Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, “drink excessively and engage in highly inappropriate behavior, including being overly aggressive with girls and not taking 'No' for an answer. This included the fondling and grabbing of girls without consent.”

Republicans have been quick to point out that her lawyer, Mr. Avenatti, has political motivations. “Seems to me he wants to protect people involved in pornography, and he’s running for president,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, commented.

But Senator Grassley went on to say that what’s important here isn’t the lawyer, but “the woman who says she’s been harmed.”

“We have had accusation after accusation. Very few of them, if any, corroborated,” Grassley told reporters. “Our lawyers are on [this latest allegation] right now, our staff investigators. I can’t say anything until they get done.”

On Wednesday evening, President Trump called the allegations against Kavanaugh “a big, fat con job” in a press conference, praising Kavanaugh as “one of the highest-quality people that I’ve ever met.” Of the accusations, he said, “These are all false to me.... These are all false accusations in certain cases. What they’ve done to this man is incredible.” He added that he remained open to “changing my mind” depending on the testimony Thursday.

The challenge, of course, is that Republicans are looking at a ticking clock. The Supreme Court begins its term Monday, and Republicans had originally hoped to seat Kavanaugh by then. Grassley had planned a committee vote for Friday morning, after Thursday’s scheduled hearing – then a vote of the full Senate early next week.

But each new allegation imperils that schedule, and perhaps the nomination itself – potentially causing the holy grail of a majority-conservative court to slip through Republicans’ hands.

In a narrowly divided 51-to-49 Senate, where Republicans have only the barest majority, each new accusation makes it difficult for any Democrat to support Kavanaugh, says Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the independent Inside Elections. That puts the focus on Republicans, who have very little room for error. Republican Sens. Flake, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are undecided.

On Monday, Senator Murkowski told The New York Times that the issue was no longer whether Kavanaugh was qualified, but “whether or not a woman who has been a victim at some point in her life is to be believed.” In her home state, the governor, lieutenant governor, and the Alaska Federation of Natives have all declared against Kavanaugh.

There’s risk to plowing ahead, notes Mr. Gonzales, “but some Republicans believe that the short-term risk is worth the long-term benefit of having someone with his philosophy on the court for a lifetime.”

But Democrats, too, carry a risk. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana – who all voted to confirm Mr. Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch – are all endangered Democrats seeking reelection in states that Trump won handily. “As long as the president is supportive of Kavanaugh … they are at some risk,” Gonzales says.

That’s not how Dianne Bystrom sees it. The sexual-assault allegations “really do give cover to those Democrats in red states,” says the director emerita of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

These allegations are coming at the time of the #MeToo movement, bringing with it heightened sensitivity to sexual harassment and assault. That was underscored in a week in which comedian Bill Cosby was sentenced to prison for sexual assault.

Take Kathleen Harlow, a music professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, who remembers the Anita Hill hearings and has been watching the Kavanaugh nomination process closely. The #MeToo movement is putting pressure on institutions, including her own, to tackle a culture of sexual harassment that had been brushed under the carpet, she says. Berklee said last year it had fired 11 faculty members for assault and harassment, a fact it initially kept quiet.

Society hasn’t fully reckoned with the issue of sexual abuse, says Professor Harlow, speaking before Wednesday's fresh round of allegations. “The demand for it has. But I think that it is one of the conversations that will define this country at this point.”

Women voters are expected to make the difference in this year’s midterm elections, Ms. Bystrom says, and she expects them to be even more energized by the Kavanaugh nomination. A pattern is beginning to emerge in the allegations that many women will recognize, she says. “These stories are consistent with someone who drank too much and participated in behavior that many young men participated in at that time.”

Other analysts say it’s simply impossible to know how the allegations and the Kavanaugh nomination will play out politically. The news cycle is now so compressed, it’s hard to know what will be salient weeks from now, when voters go to the polls.

“Is this the defining thing in early November? I just don’t know,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

The uncertainty – and the enormous political stakes – are the reason for the tense atmosphere in the Senate. Will Kavanaugh survive? Will Democrats retake the Senate? Will Republicans have to try with a new nominee in the lame duck session?

No one knows. But Flake stated the obvious on the Senate floor: However the vote goes, “I’m confident in saying it will forever be steeped in doubt.”

Staff writer Rebecca Asoulin contributed to this report from Boston.

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