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10 takeaways from the Brett Kavanaugh-Christine Blasey Ford hearings

Posted at 10:23 AM, Sep 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-27 20:03:55-04

The eyes of the country were on a small hearing room on Capitol Hill Thursday, where Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers, are testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

FULL COVERAGE: Ford, Kavanaugh testify in Judiciary Committee hearing

The testimony was gripping -- and the whole hearing, featuring both Ford and Kavanaugh, is worth watching to get a full picture, but several moments and themes stood out.

Below you'll find a set of takeaways that I thought were worth taking note of as I watched the hearing live.

The testimony was gripping -- and the whole hearing, featuring both Ford and Kavanaugh, is worth watching to get a full picture, but several moments and themes stood out.

Below you'll find a set of takeaways that I thought were worth taking note of as I watched the hearing live.

1. Ford is credible

This strikes me as the first question that anyone watching the hearing had to wonder. Before 11 days ago, no one outside of her family, social and professional circles knew who she was. Now everyone knows who she is -- but very few people had seen anything other than a single picture of her wearing sunglasses. We hadn't heard her voice, seen her mannerisms. And most importantly, we hadn't seen her tell the story of the night in 1982, in which she alleges that assault took place.

Within a few minutes of her reading from her opening statement, it became clear that Ford was decidedly credible. She struck me as a normal person thrust into an impossible situation. Someone who was doing what she believed to be the right thing. Her voice shook. Her breath was short. She was clearly fighting her emotions as she offered a specific and at times devastating recounting of the episode at the center of her claim. She was sympathetic when discussing how her life had been horribly jolted by her decision to come forward with her allegations. (She told of having to stay in secure locales, at times separated from her family, and with security guards always around her.)

What I kept asking myself watching Ford's testimony (and questioning) is, why would she be doing all of this if she didn't believe she was telling the truth? Why subject yourself to all of this? What would her motive be for not telling the truth -- as she remembers it -- about what happened that night in the early 1980s? Critics would argue that her motivations are political -- but I just don't buy it. Not in watching Ford's testimony.

2. The manner of questioning is, um, not great

It was always going to be a somewhat odd hearing, given that the 11 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee ceded their right to question Ford to an independent prosecutor named Rachel Mitchell. (Democrats did not do the same.) But the reality has been very jarring. For five minutes, Mitchell goes through a meticulous checking of the story that Ford has told through a variety of mediums. Then, suddenly, Mitchell is interrupted by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who tells her that the allotted five minutes is up. A Democratic senator then takes over, offering -- at least to this point -- undiluted praise for Ford's bravery.

For a viewer -- including the senators sitting on the Judiciary Committee -- it makes the entire proceeding a bit difficult to follow. For Republicans, who were clearly concerned about how it might look to have 11 men asking question of a woman alleging sexual assault, the awkwardness of the back-and-forth questioning is something they are willing to deal with given the alternative.

3. Grassley's tin ear

The reason Republicans -- led by Grassley -- chose to bring in Mitchell rather than to ask their own question of Ford is because they didn't want to make themselves the story Thursday. But starting with his opening statement, the Iowa Republican is not doing very well in that regard.

Grassley's opening statement sounded like a closing argument in which he seemed to focus almost exclusively on how incredibly gracious he had been in trying to ensure that Ford had a chance to tell her story. He didn't help himself when he interrupted ranking member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to make clear that he had planned to introduce Ford's curriculum vitae even as Feinstein was doing so.

On several other occasions within the first two hours of the hearing, Grassley repeatedly interjected himself to make clear how far his committee had bent over backward to help Ford get to this day. I understand his desire to defend his own behavior and conduct -- and that of the Senate Republican majority. But it rang as tone-deaf to me watching.

And maybe he's figuring that out. During the first break in the hearing, Grassley told reporters: "I don't think I can make any comments at all today, maybe it's something I ought to sleep on. This is pretty important. We ought to be thinking about it a lot and not making hasty comments."

4. Hatch's 'attractive' gaffe

Asked how he believed Ford had done in the morning session of her testimony, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said this: "I don't think she's uncredible. I think she an attractive, good witness." Asked what he meant, Hatch said, "In other words, she's pleasing."

Amid the almost-immediate furor caused by those comments, Hatch communications director Matt Whitlock noted that "Hatch uses 'attractive' to describe personalities, not appearances. If you search his past quotes you'll see he's used it consistently for years for men and women he believed has compelling personalities."

Which I will take at face value. Hatch is an 84-year-old man who may occasionally use words and phrases that aren't regularly used in modern diction. But here's the thing: Context matters. If you are a sitting United States senator who has spent an entire morning listening to Ford's testimony about the alleged sexual assault she endured as a teenager, you just can't use the word "attractive" or "pleasing" to describe her. You can't do it. Full stop.

5. Mitchell's swings and misses

Rachel Mitchell, the independent prosecutor brought in by Grassley to ask the questions on behalf of the Republican senators, seemed to have two goals in her questioning:

    Trying to find holes in Ford's story of the night in which she said that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her
    Trying to find any sort of instance where Democrats urged Ford to come forward or coached her on her story or her testimony

Aside from Ford acknowledging that one of the two law firms that she wound up employing to represent her was recommended by Feinstein's office, Mitchell failed on both accounts.

There was also a very clear prosecutorial tone to Mitchell's approach to her questioning of Ford. Which makes sense. She is a prosecutor! But the decision by Grassley (and, presumably, the other Senate Republicans) to defer all of their questioning to Mitchell ensured that outcome.

6. The silence of Senate Republicans

I get why Republicans decided that they couldn't risk the images of 11 men interviewing a woman on sexual assault allegations. But their silence throughout the four-plus hours of questioning of Ford was striking. With the exception of Grassley, and a handful of small interjections from South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, no Republicans on the dais said anything.

Which, to me, was a mistake. Why not let the nation see you thank Ford for her willingness to testify? Or sympathize with the trauma she quite clearly experienced -- whether or not you believe she is telling the capital "T" truth of the matter? How could that not be a better move -- politically and as a human -- thanks simply sitting in silence while a prosecutor questions Ford?

7. Kavanaugh's angry and emotional opening statement

In the wake of Kavanaugh's interview with Fox News earlier this week, the reporting coming out of the White House suggested that President Donald Trump was unhappy with what he believed to be a wooden and lifeless performance by the Supreme Court nominee.

Kavanaugh clearly took that criticism to heart. The first 10-ish minutes of his opening statements was delivered in something close to a yell. He blasted Democratic senators for what he insisted was a coordinated attempt to smear him. He invoked the Clintons, he called out Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee for calling him "evil." He also insisted that he would never withdraw as the nominee and dared Democrats to vote him down.

The performance was one that undoubtedly delighted Trump. The question is whether Senate Republicans -- first those on the Judiciary Committee and then the broader GOP conference -- is convinced by Kavanaugh's anger. Is it seen as the righteous indignation of a man who has been wrongly accused? Or the lashing out of a man who knows he is cornered? Or somewhere in between?

8. No one is more outraged than Lindsey Graham

The South Carolina Republican senator came into Thursday's hearing mad as hell -- and he stayed that way. Unlike the more senior Republicans on the committee, Graham didn't cede his time to Mitchell. Instead, he used it to excoriate his Democratic colleagues for what he called "the most unethical sham since I've been in politics." (He physically pointed at Democrats during this line.) He added, in a message to his Republican colleagues: "If you vote 'no' you are legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics."

Let's take Graham's outrage at face value. Grant him that he believes that Kavanaugh is being railroaded by false and defamatory accusations. Granted.

But it is impossible to ignore the fact that Graham has faced primary challengers in each of his last two races, primaries in which he is attacked as being insufficiently conservative. Playing the attack dog role in these hearings is the sort of thing that conservatives, who care deeply about judicial nominees, will remember forever.

The White House certainly noticed. ".@LindseyGrahamSC has more decency and courage than every Democrat member of the committee combined," tweeted press secretary Sarah Sanders. "God bless him."

9. Republicans called an audible on Mitchell

The plan, from the start of the hearing, was that Mitchell would handle the questioning of both Ford and Kavanaugh for the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee. And as I noted above, that's what happened in the Ford questioning. Each Republican senator ceded their five minutes to Mitchell and she pursued a largely unsuccessful attempt to poke holes in Ford's recollection of the night the alleged assault happened.

And that's how the questioning began in Kavanaugh's testimony. Mitchell asked a series of questions of Kavanaugh about his drinking habits, his calendar from 1982 and other details about that time of his life. Then, suddenly, it stopped. Graham began the trend, claiming his five minutes to lambaste Democrats for their handling of the allegations against Kavanaugh. Then Texas Sen. John Cornyn followed suit. And Orrin Hatch of Utah. And Mike Lee. And Nebraska's Ben Sasse. And Idaho's Mike Crapo.

Throughout all of these Republican senators asking questions, Mitchell simply sat and waited. No explanation was given for why the initial plan to allow her to ask the questions had been abandoned. The reason, at least to me, seemed somewhat obvious: Republicans saw that the hearing -- both Ford's testimony and the start of Kavanaugh's -- was heading in a bad direction for their side and their hopes of salvaging his nomination. So they decided to take matters into their own hands. I'm very interested to see if Republicans offer any other -- less political -- explanation for their decision to effectively call an audible in the middle of the most high-profile congressional hearing in decades.

10. This was an utterly wrenching day

From Ford's emotional testimony to Kavanaugh's clear anger, Thursday's hearings were a wrenching process.

Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee first and told of how she has been forced into hiding since coming forward publicly in an interview with The Washington Post.

"I am terrified," Ford said in her opening statement, and everything in her countenance attested to how incredibly difficult and painful recounting these memories of her alleged trauma were.

Kavanaugh went next, saying that the accusations over the course of the past 11 days had made it likely he could never coach his daughters' basketball team again. That he might never be able to teach at Harvard Law School again.

"This has destroyed my family and my good name," Kavanaugh said. "This has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit."

The reality at the end of the hearing was the same as when it started: There is simply no reasonable expectation that any of the senators on the Judiciary Committee will be able, after today, to ascertain the capital "T" truth in this situation. And yet, those same 21 senators -- 11 Republicans, 10 Democrats -- will almost assuredly be asked to vote in the not-too-distant future on whether Kavanaugh should be given a lifetime appointment to the most powerful court in the country.