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What to expect at the Senate hearing on sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh

Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh will both testify, in the wake of more explosive allegations against the nominee.

Activists March From Senate To Supreme Court In Support Of Christine Blasey Ford
Protesters in front of the Supreme Court on September 24, 2018.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is testifying in front of Congress again. And this time, he won’t just be making the case for a seat on the Supreme Court — he’ll be defending himself from numerous allegations of sexual misconduct.

Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, which begins at 10 am, is the culmination of negotiations between lawmakers and the attorneys for Christine Blasey Ford, a Palo Alto University professor who has accused Kavanaugh of forcing himself on her when they were in high school. Ford and Kavanaugh are both scheduled to testify.

The allegations of Deborah Ramirez, one of Kavanaugh’s Yale classmates who has accused him of exposing himself to her, and those raised by Michael Avenatti’s client Julie Swetnick, who has said that Kavanaugh targeted women with alcohol and drugs during house parties in the early 1980s so they could be sexually assaulted and “gang raped,” are expected to come up as well. Ramirez and Swetnick were not set to testify as of press time.

Absent any FBI investigation into the allegations, this hearing is about the Senate — and the public — making a decision about whether Ford, who came forward with the allegations earlier this month, or Kavanaugh, who has unequivocally denied them, is more credible.

Many Republicans, however, have already hinted that they’ve made up their minds: Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley scheduled a Friday committee vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation before Ford had even testified. This is in part because Republican leaders really want to try to confirm Kavanaugh as close as possible to the start of the Supreme Court term on Monday, October 1.

“[Our members] want to make sure that there’s a fair process and Dr. Ford has a chance to be heard. We’ll see what comes out of that,” Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, told reporters on Tuesday, adding that they’re ready to move forward “if nothing changes.”

What the hearing will look like

This hearing has striking parallels with the Anita Hill hearings in 1991 — when Hill raised sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. It is not only the last chance for both parties to make their arguments about Kavanaugh’s nomination but also a key opportunity to show how much either of them has changed in the era of #MeToo.

Republicans seem to have learned at least one lesson from the Hill hearings: They’ve enlisted a female prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, to do the questioning to avoid the optics of older white men asking a woman about an alleged sexual assault.

“As you know, it is not uncommon for professional staff to do questioning in a situation like this,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday of the decision to bring in outside counsel. Outside counsel had previously been used by lawmakers in the Watergate Senate hearings, he noted. Ford’s attorney Michael Bromwich has pushed back on this characterization and said that Watergate was a unique scenario and that there is no precedent for handling a hearing in this way.

Due to Republicans’ hiring of Mitchell, a longtime Arizona sex crimes prosecutor, to handle witness questioning, the hearing itself might have the air of a courtroom proceeding. The room where it is being held is also much smaller than the one where Kavanaugh testified in his initial confirmation hearing, and Ford has requested a limit on the number of cameras.

But it’s important to remember that this isn’t a criminal proceeding or anything like one. Republicans have declined to involve law enforcement in any capacity, despite Ford’s and Ramirez’s calls for an FBI investigation.

Ford will testify first and Kavanaugh second, in two separate panels. This, again, is the result of negotiations between Ford’s lawyer and the committee. Ford requested that she not have to face her alleged assailant, a request the committee granted. She also pressed for the opportunity to speak last, giving her the advantage of having the last word, but the committee denied that particular request.

Thursday’s panel is incredibly high-stakes for both Republicans and Democrats and could be a deciding moment in determining whether Kavanaugh’s nomination ultimately sinks. His confirmation is expected to hinge heavily on Ford’s testimony — and which person key lawmakers choose to believe.

“This is a very pivotal moment,” said Jim Manley, a former communications adviser for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “There’s a whole bunch of Republicans waiting to see what happens during this hearing before deciding on a vote. This is about as high-stakes a hearing as it gets.”

What to expect from the questioning of Ford and Kavanaugh

Each senator has the opportunity to question both Kavanaugh and Ford for five minutes each, totaling roughly two hours of questioning for each witness. Republicans have also announced that they plan to employ Mitchell to interrogate both witnesses. Mitchell doesn’t have her own time, but Republicans can cede their individual five minutes to Mitchell — though Democrats are expected to ask questions themselves.

Despite repeatedly saying that they want Ford to be heard in an even-handed forum, Republicans have vehemently second-guessed her recollection of the alleged assault, which is something that Mitchell will probably probe extensively. Many conservatives have also emphasized the lack of corroborating witnesses, something Kavanaugh brought up during a Fox News interview on Monday.

“The goal is to de-politicize the process and get to the truth, instead of grandstanding and giving senators an opportunity to launch their presidential campaigns,” Grassley said in a statement, in an apparent dig at Judiciary Democrats like Sen. Cory Booker who’ve said they’re interested in a 2020 presidential run.

Democrats, meanwhile, will likely focus on accounts of the pervasive culture of heavy underage drinking at Georgetown Prep, the controversial writings of Mark Judge — Kavanaugh’s classmate who is also implicated in the alleged assault — and the similarities across the allegations that have emerged. Judge has said he has “no recollection” of the incident that Ford describes and never saw Kavanaugh acting that way.

Democrats are also skeptical of Republicans’ use of outside counsel. “We got elected to do our jobs, we believe in doing our jobs, we don’t believe in having somebody else do our job for us because we’re afraid to ask questions,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, a former chair of the Judiciary Committee, told Vox. “I certainly haven’t seen it in the 44 years I’ve been here.”

What comes next

The committee has already scheduled a vote for the day after the hearing takes place. While the move seemed to suggest that Republicans are ready to barrel forward with a vote regardless of what comes out of Thursday’s hearing, a spokesperson for Grassley said it was simply set “in the event that a majority of the members are prepared to hold one on Friday.”

Once the committee votes, the nomination could hit the Senate floor as early as Saturday — but because of debate over the nominee and other procedural rules, it’s not expected to actually get a vote from the full Senate until next Monday or Tuesday. It’s also worth noting that McConnell has the power to bring Kavanaugh’s nomination to the floor, regardless of how the committee vote ends up going.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and all 10 Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are calling on Kavanaugh to withdraw from the confirmation process altogether.

If Kavanaugh does get a floor vote next week, a slew of closely watched Republican moderates and red-state Democrats will have to determine how they’ll vote. Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Jeff Flake are still considered some of the key Republican swing votes to watch, while red-state Democrats like Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly could be pressured to vote for Kavanaugh.

It would require the Democratic caucus staying united against Kavanaugh and two Republicans joining them to block his nomination. Given concerns that lawmakers like Flake and Murkowski have expressed regarding Ford’s allegations — and the need to listen to Ford’s side of the story — Thursday’s hearing is expected to play a crucial role in determining whether that happens.

As Flake has said, “Obviously, if you believe the charges are true, then you vote no.”

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