Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee came up with a solution to the optics problem of an all-male panel questioning a woman about her sexual assault claims: They hired a woman to do it for them.
But it might have backfired.
Christine Blasey Ford is testifying in front of the committee about her claim that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school (which he has denied). The hearing got very strange very fast when Rachel Mitchell, the Arizona prosecutor Republicans hired, started her line of questioning.
Mitchell started out asking some oddly narrow questions, like when Ford wrote a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) detailing her allegations. It wasn’t clear what point Mitchell was trying to make, but it had a prosecutor-style feel that normally builds to a point — but before it got there, Sen. Chuck Grassley (IA), the Republican chair of the committee, interrupted.
“Ms. Mitchell, I don’t know whether this is fair to interrupt, I want to keep people within five minutes. Is that a major problem for you in the middle of a question?” Grassley asked. “Can I go to Sen. Feinstein?”
And just like that, Mitchell’s questioning was cut off. Feinstein, the ranking Democrat who was next in line to ask Ford questions, got five minutes of her own.
Then the ball went back to Grassley, who tossed it to Mitchell, who picked back up where she left off — asking about the details of that letter.
The whiplash of going to back and forth from a prosecutor strangely putting someone who has said she was sexually assaulted on trial and a normal Senate hearing is incredibly jarring: not at all what you’d want from a hearing designed to get at the truth of what really happened to Christine Blasey Ford.
This format is a disaster on all levels: moral, legal, and political. And, at heart, it’s Republicans’ fault.
Why the hearing is such a mess
In a typical hearing, the senators ask witnesses questions. Each senator gets five minutes to talk, alternating between Democrats and Republicans.
But in this case, Republicans were too afraid to do the questioning on their own. The images of the 11 white men who make up the Republican committee membership questioning Ford were bad on their own. There was also a not-insignificant possibility that one of those men would say something offensive to Ford or about sexual assault in general.
So they decided to outsource the questioning to Mitchell, a sex crimes prosecutor from Arizona, but keep the typical alternating format. Mitchell would just take the place of each Republican, trading off with Democrats and picking up when their time was up.
The bulk of the Ford hearings have proven this “compromise” to be a disaster. Mitchell has approached her job like a prosecutor (or perhaps more aptly, as Kavanaugh’s defense attorney) going after a hostile witness, pressing Ford on various details of her story — at one point asking her to identify her house on a map, for example.
Cross-examinations like this work at trial because they build to a point: The prosecutor establishes facts and then uses them to trap the witness into saying something damaging or inconsistent. As former federal sex crimes prosecutor Allison Leotta explains:
Do not for a minute think this sex crimes prosecutor is trying to find the truth about a sex crime. This is how you cross examine someone. Nail down the documents, then start picking apart minor details. #Kavanaugh— Allison Leotta (@AllisonLeotta) September 27, 2018
I’d hoped Rachel Mitchell would act like a prosecutor, but she is 100% acting as the Republicans’ defense attorney. #KavanaghHearing— Allison Leotta (@AllisonLeotta) September 27, 2018
It’s impossible for Mitchell to build this kind of momentum when she keeps having to stop questioning every five minutes. After the Democrats speak, it’s very hard, just as someone watching the hearing, to follow what Mitchell is trying to get at. The point of all the questioning gets muddled and eventually lost.
The format also leads to the bad optics that Republicans were trying to avoid: Grassley, who looks and sounds like white male privilege personified, constantly interrupting a woman for somewhat inane reasons.
Finally, and most importantly, the very presence of Mitchell — and her prosecutorial approach — reveals what’s really going on here. Republicans want to paint Ford as a witness who is not credible and grill her on every detail to try to establish some problem with her testimony. They don’t appear to be listening to Ford; instead, they’ve brought in a hit woman because they’re too cowardly to go after her themselves.
It reveals that Republicans are less interested in getting to the bottom of things and more interested in setting this up as a he-said, she-said debate between Kavanaugh and Ford — which it isn’t, as Ford says that Kavanaugh had an accomplice, Mark Judge, whom Republicans have declined to subpoena. (Judge has denied the accusation.)
The upshot of all of this is that Ford is treated as if she’s lying, without any redeeming value of illuminating the truth of what happened back in 1982. It’s politically damaging for Republicans, a dubious advocacy role to assign to a prosecutor, and just not fair to Ford.
There may be one upshot to this farce of a hearing: It is very unlikely to overshadow Ford’s moving, brave, and exceedingly credible opening statement.