The Ford-Kavanaugh sexual assault hearings, explained

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Christine Blasey Ford is sworn in before testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27, 2018.

If you want to know why women don’t come forward with allegations of sexual assault, today’s Senate hearings offered a clue.

If you want to know why women don’t come forward with allegations of sexual assault, Thursday’s Senate hearings offered a clue.

In the morning, an all-male panel of Republican senators hired an outside prosecutor to try to pick apart Christine Blasey Ford’s credibility live on national television. They refused to subpoena Mark Judge, the key witness, or launch the FBI investigation Ford asked for. And after hearing her testimony, and judging it credible, they simply ignored it.

In the afternoon, those same senators feted Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the man Ford accused of attacking her. They cut off the prosecutor they hired in order to give speech after speech lamenting the way he and his family have suffered. They said they had no doubt Ford’s assault was real, but that her memory was flawed; whoever had assaulted her, it wasn’t Kavanaugh. But Kavanaugh’s memory was beyond reproach. After calling in professional help to cross-examine Ford, they repeatedly apologized for troubling Kavanaugh.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, delivered an unforgettable performance. He was silent during Ford’s testimony, freely yielding his time to prosecutor Rachel Mitchell. During Kavanaugh’s testimony, however, Graham buoyed the witness and ripped into the Democrats. “This is hell,” he told Kavanaugh. The hearings were “the most unethical sham” he’d seen in his decades-long political career.

Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) during his time to question Judge Brett Kavanaugh.Win McNamee/Getty Images
Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) during his time to question Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

“To my Republican colleagues,” Graham spat, “if you vote no, you’re legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics.”

But the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings played out in a larger context. Since the dawn of the #MeToo movement, the question has been when the backlash would come, and what form it would take. This week, you could feel it building.

The media was reverberating after Ian Buruma, the editor of the New York Review of Books, was fired for overruling his staff and publishing a Jian Ghomeshi essay about how dozens of allegations of sexual assault and harassment against him had unfairly derailed his career. Harper’s published a similar essay at around the same time, and was also pounded for it. The terror that women’s accusations were unfairly ending men’s careers — and that there was nothing men could do about it — was boiling over. But someone needed to take a stand, and be backed up by enough power to survive that stand.

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that President Donald Trump would be the one who would provide the playbook. After all, he’s been the great scourge of the #MeToo moment, the one whose misdeeds have never hurt him.

On Wednesday, Trump gave a press conference where he took direct aim at #MeToo. “When you are guilty until proven innocent, it’s just not supposed to be that way,” he said. “That’s a very dangerous standard for the country.” That night, CNN reported that a concerned Trump had told Kavanaugh that the time for calm denials was over; he needed to go on offense.

So he did. It was the moment the #MeToo backlash truly took shape.

Christine Blasey Ford’s gutting testimony

If Ford and her husband had never remodeled their house, Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination would have sailed through the Senate.

According to Ford’s testimony, she had never told anyone of her sexual assault in detail. That changed in 2012, when she and her husband were redoing their home and she insisted on having a second front door — a second way out of the house. Her husband couldn’t understand; the request seemed ridiculous. Why does a house need two ways out?

During a session with their couples therapist, Ford explained, it all spilled out. She had been assaulted as a teenager. She was pushed into a room and nearly raped. Her attacker, whom she recalled then and now as Kavanaugh, clapped his hand across her mouth when she screamed, pushing down so tightly she couldn’t breathe, so tightly she thought he might kill her by accident.

Christine Blasey Ford during her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Christine Blasey Ford during her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

He was laughing. His friend Mark Judge was laughing. That’s what she remembers most of all, she says — the laughter. At some point, they tumbled off the bed and she fled the room, locking herself in a bathroom until she heard them go back downstairs and their voices receded. Then she ran from the house, terrified she’d run into them on the way out and the attack would begin again.

That’s why she needed a second door in her house, she explained. Because in a moment of trauma, she had needed another way out, and 30 years later, there was still a part of her that couldn’t be comfortable, that couldn’t feel safe, without another way out. That’s why there’s a record from 2012, when her therapist wrote down what Ford said; when her husband first heard Kavanaugh’s name. That’s why her allegation was taken seriously.

That’s the story, through tears, that Ford told the Senate and the country on Thursday.

“I am here today not because I want to be,” she said. “I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me with Brett.”

Ford’s testimony was — by wide acclaim — powerful, specific, and gutting. She was a friendly witness, trying to answer questions, asking repeatedly for an investigation to help clear the holes in her own memory, thanking the committee for the consideration they gave her. Her expertise as a professor of clinical psychology kept shining through as she offered clear, powerful explanations of how trauma worked on the brain, how it had worked on her brain.

Mitchell, the prosecutor, largely abandoned the task of questioning the core of Ford’s account. She ended up harassing Ford on points that even Republicans thought minor, like why her fear of flying hadn’t prevented her from taking past vacations, and who paid for a $200 polygraph test.

Ford was such a strong witness, in fact, that the fear was she had set an unreachable standard. “Through no fault of her own, she has also reinforced the incredibly high bar of believability,” wrote BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen:

Ford is white, upper-middle class, married, and highly educated. She is calm but demure. She is visibly shaken yet steady. She could afford the therapy that helped document her psychological past. She has a support system and the means to hire a lawyer. Imagine if you lack even one of these qualities. Imagine if your behavior, or your voice, or your face, or the life you’ve lived doesn’t perfectly match what is demanded of the ideal victim. Would you be believed?

“Were men out there brought to tears or shaking visceral response by that?” asked New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister. “Because the messages I have from women, and what’s happening in my own apartment, suggest that many many women were.”

Even Fox News was impressed. “This is a disaster for the Republicans,” said Fox News’s Chris Wallace.

And then it was Kavanaugh’s turn.

Christine Blasey Ford finishing her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.Melina Mara-Pool/Getty Images
Christine Blasey Ford finishing her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Brett Kavanaugh strikes back

If Ford did everything — and more — that could be asked of a witness, Kavanaugh did something near the opposite. He entered the hearing with his jaw set and his face flushed. His voice a near shout, he read a long, angry, unflinching, and notably Trumpish statement.

“This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit,” he raged, “fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record. Revenge on behalf of the Clintons and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups. This is a circus.”

Kavanaugh’s anger worked. Just as Ford fit society’s expectations for a victim, Kavanaugh looked like a man falsely accused: furious, fearful, tearing up when he mentioned his parents or his daughters. He laced into his tormentors, determined to clear his name. He gave no ground. He badgered and interrupted the Democrats questioning him.

 Melina Mara-POOL/AFP/Getty Images
Supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27, 2018.

And in his pain, his outrage, the assembled Republican senators found their voice. Initially, they left their questioning — as they had with Ford — to Mitchell, the outside prosecutor. But after Graham refused to yield his time, choosing instead to apologize to Kavanaugh and cut into the Democrats, so too did every Republican after him. And one after the other, they apologized to Kavanaugh.

“Judge, I can’t think of a more embarrassing scandal for the United States Senate since the McCarthy hearings,” said Sen. John Cornyn.

The Democrats “have brought us to our worst in our politics,” apologized Sen. Orrin Hatch. “It’s certainly brought us no closer to the truth.”

“This could have been handled in such a way that didn’t turn this into a circus, one that has turned your life update down and your family and the life of Dr. Ford upside down,” said Sen. Mike Lee. “I consider this most unfortunate.”

But it was Sen. John Kennedy, the final questioner, who truly laid everything bare.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., listens to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as he testifies.Tom Williams/Pool Image via AP
Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) listens to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as he testifies.

“I’m sorry, Judge, for what you and your family have been through, and I’m sorry for what Dr. Ford and her family have been through,” he said. “It could have been avoided.” And then he asked: “Do you believe in God?”

Kavanaugh said that he did.

“I’m going to give you a last opportunity right here, right in front of God and country,” Kennedy said. “I want you to look me in the eye. Are Dr. Ford’s allegations true?”

Kavanaugh looked him in the eye. “They’re not accurate as to me. I have not questioned that she might have been sexually assaulted at some point in her life by someone someplace. But as to me, I’ve never done this.”

“None of these allegations are true?” Kennedy asked.

“Correct,” Kavanaugh said.

“No doubt in your mind?”

“Zero. 100 percent certain.”

“Not even a scintilla?”

“Not a scintilla. 100 percent certain, Senator.”

“Do you swear to God?”

“I swear to God.”

“That’s all I have, Judge,” Kennedy said. And, with that, the hearing was over.

Trump was thrilled. “Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him,” he tweeted shortly after the hearing ended. “The Senate must vote!”

Whom do we believe, and when

The day played out like a set piece. In the morning, Ford showed how high the bar was to even have a chance of being believed. Her story is specific, credible, serious. She’s told it to multiple people over the years. She tried to tell it to Congress before Kavanaugh was nominated. She places Kavanaugh in the town he lived, at the house of a person he knew, in a room with one of his best friends. She tried her best to be polite to the senators, to avoid offense, to show gratitude to the committee for listening to her. She took a polygraph, begged for an FBI investigation. She says she’s 100 percent sure it was Kavanaugh who attacked her.

 Andrew Harnik – Pool/Getty Images
Christine Blasey Ford is greeted by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), left, during a break in her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27, 2018.

In the afternoon, Kavanaugh simply denied all charges. He denied ever being blackout drunk. He denied ever forgetting anything of importance. He denied the possibility he was wrong, that it might be useful for his alleged accomplice Mark Judge to testify or for the FBI to investigate. He said Ford’s memory had failed her but was incredulous at the idea that his recall could deliver a similar error.

And he fought back. He slammed his accusers; he made clear his pain, his rage. If Ford was grateful for the opportunity to be heard, Kavanaugh was incredulous that she was being given that opportunity, that it was taking this long, that it could possibly take longer.

 Tom Williams-Pool/CQ Roll Call
Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Asked why the committee couldn’t take another week to investigate the claims more thoroughly, he shot back, “Every day has been a lifetime.” His suffering was immense, unfair, unforgivable. “I’m never going to get my reputation back,” he said. “My life is totally and permanently altered.”

The suffering of his accusers, women who say they’ve been living with the trauma of what he did for decades? They were mistaken, and their claims could be, should be, for the good of the county had to be, dismissed. “This grotesque character assassination will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions from serving our country,” he said.

The feminist philosopher Kate Manne coined the term “himpathy” to describe the “tendency to dismiss the female perspective altogether, to empathize with the powerful man over his less powerful alleged female victim.” What Kavanaugh did today was activate the Republican Party’s powerful sense of himpathy: His suffering was the question, and Ford’s suffering, to say nothing of any further search for the truth, slipped soundlessly beneath the water.

We ended the day in much the same place we started: his word against hers. But even as everyone agreed Ford’s word was credible, it didn’t matter. There was still Kavanaugh’s word. And it appeared, for Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, that that was enough. She was 100 percent sure and he was 100 percent sure, but it was his 100 percent sure that mattered.

On this, Trump was right. What Kavanaugh had needed to do was go on the offensive. He needed to remind the all-male Republican panel that he was the victim here, that any of them could be victims, that moving his nomination forward would be a show of strength, a message sent to the Democrats and their allies, a statement that these tactics end here and they end now. This is how you fight #MeToo: by focusing on the pain it’s causing men, by centering their suffering.

All of this was, perhaps, predictable. On Wednesday, a new NPR/Marist poll found that while large majorities of Democrats and independents believed Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination should be rejected if Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations are true, a majority of Republicans believed Kavanaugh should be confirmed even if Ford’s allegations are true. If Thursday’s hearing didn’t ultimately seem to be about the truth at all, well, perhaps that’s why: The truth was never really what Senate Republicans were after.

Flowers and notes supporting Christine Blasey Ford sit on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on September 27, 2018.Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Flowers and notes supporting Christine Blasey Ford sit on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on September 27, 2018.

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