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Kavanaugh-Ford sexual assault controversy: She said, then he said; now what will senators say

America watched, transfixed, the gripping day-long hearing of Christine Blasey Ford recounting in harrowing detail an alleged attempted rape by Brett Kavanaugh, a Supreme Court nominee, 36 years ago. Now senators must decide who they believe, a vote that could affect Kavanaugh’s nomination.

world Updated: Sep 28, 2018 09:29 IST
The New York Times
The New York Times
Washington
Brett Kavanaugh,Christine Blasey Ford,Kavanaugh sexual assault
US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Professor Christine Blasey Ford, testify in this combination photo during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, US, on September 27, 2018. (Reuters)

At the beginning of the day, she was asked if she was sure that he was the one who sexually assaulted her 36 years ago. “One hundred percent,” she said. At the end of the day, he was asked if he was certain he had not. “One hundred percent,” he said.

One after the other, Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh sat in the same chair before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, separated by less than an hour but a reality gulf so wide their conflicting accounts of what happened when they were teenagers cannot be reconciled.

With millions of Americans alternately riveted and horrified by the televised drama, Blasey and Kavanaugh left no room for compromise, no possibility of confusion, no chance that they remembered something differently. In effect, they asked senators to choose which one they believed. And in that moment, these two 100 percent realities came to embody a society divided into broader realities so disparate and so incompatible that it feels as if two countries are living in the borders of one.

It has become something of a cliche to say that the United States has become increasingly tribal in the era of President Donald Trump, with each side in its own corner, believing what it chooses to believe and looking for reinforcement in the media and politics. But the battle over Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination has reinforced those divisions at the intersection of sex, politics, power and the law.

Senators emerged from Thursday’s hearing bitterly split into those tribes, with Democrats persuaded by Blasey’s calm and unflustered account of being shoved onto a bed, pawed, nearly stripped and prevented from screaming for help, while Republicans were moved by Kavanaugh, who bristled with red-faced outrage and grievance at what he called an orchestrated campaign to destroy his life.

By Thursday night, only a few of the 100 who will decide Judge Kavanaugh’s fate remained undecided, searching for answers where none were readily available. “There is doubt,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. “We’ll never move beyond that. Just have a little humility on that.”

It was surely the most explosive and surreal confirmation hearing since Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill in 1991. A nominee for the Supreme Court was asked if he was “a gang rapist” and a blackout drunk, while defending himself by describing how long he preserved his virginity. His accuser described him “grinding into me,” covering her mouth when she tried to scream and fearing that he “was accidentally going to kill me.”

Unlike Hill 27 years ago, Blasey was treated gingerly by the committee Republicans, who feared looking as if they were beating up a sexual assault victim and handed over the questioning to an outside counsel who never meaningfully challenged her account.

For a dozen days, Blasey had been an idea rather than a person, the focal point of one of the most polarized debates in a polarized capital without anyone having seen her, met her or heard her. But on Thursday, she became a very human being, telling a terrible story about Kavanaugh in compelling terms that brought many women to tears and transformed the battle for the Supreme Court.

She came across as Everywoman — an Everywoman with a Ph.D. — at once guileless about politics yet schooled in the science of memory and psychology. By the end of her testimony, even Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee chairman, thanked her “for your bravery coming out.”

At this point, at the White House, on Capitol Hill and in Republican circles around town, there was despair. Even Kavanaugh’s friends acknowledged that she had come across as powerful and credible. Text messages with words like “disaster” were shared as Republicans began thinking ahead to what would happen after the nomination was withdrawn or voted down. Liberals began arguing that Kavanaugh should even step down from the appeals court where he currently serves.

But when Kavanaugh showed up in the same hearing room, it was a different nominee than the mild, overly rehearsed jurist who was interviewed on Fox News earlier in the week. Encouraged by Trump, he embraced Thomas’ approach of confrontation and anger, appealing to his tribe by adopting the narrative of the president who nominated him and the base that supports him.

While careful not to directly attack Blasey, Kavanaugh practically shouted at the senators, calling the confirmation process a “circus” and “national disgrace” and blaming the questions about his history on a conspiracy to “destroy me” fueled by “pent-up anger about President Trump” and “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.”

Suddenly, the Republican senators who seemed so defeated just minutes earlier roared back to life with righteous indignation on Kavanaugh’s behalf and dispensed with the outside counsel, taking over the questioning for themselves.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., led the way with a scathing assault on Democrats sitting a few feet away.

“What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life,” he railed at them.

Turning to Kavanaugh, he said, “You’ve got nothing to apologize for.”

Then addressing the wavering Republican senators whose votes will determine this confirmation, Graham said, “To my Republican colleagues, if you vote no, you’re legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics.”

The messages were directed at two audiences — one was Trump, who had backed Kavanaugh but left open the possibility that he would pull the nomination if he believed Blasey, and the other was the clutch of three or four senators whose votes seemed genuinely in play.

Trump responded immediately after the hearing with an endorsement of Kavanaugh and a call to confirm him. The swing votes, however, remained uncertain and huddled together into the night. With a narrow 51-49 majority, Republicans could afford to lose only one of their own if they could not pick up any Democrats.

The Judiciary Committee was scheduled to meet Friday morning to vote, with Flake the deciding vote, and Senate Republican leaders planned to move the nomination to the floor perhaps by the weekend. If Kavanaugh seemed doomed at midday Thursday and revived by the end of the day, anything could still happen before the final vote, especially if additional accusations continue to pile up.

Whether or not he is confirmed, however, the battle will not end there. With Election Day barely five weeks away and some voters already casting early ballots, Kavanaugh’s case will play out in the court of public opinion.

Democrats hope that outrage among women will drive them to the polls to help them take control of Congress. Republicans recognize that the confirmation of a nominee accused of sexual assault would be a political liability, but hope to energize the conservative base by focusing on what they characterize as a left-wing character assassination campaign.

In the end, the public will weigh in. One tribe will win. The other will lose. But they will not meet in the middle.

First Published: Sep 28, 2018 09:12 IST