Ahead of Kavanaugh’s sexual assault hearing, everyone is mad at everyone

A demonstrator outside the Supreme Court on Sept. 17.
A demonstrator outside the Supreme Court on Sept. 17.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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On Sept. 24, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is expected to face accusations he sexually assaulted a 15-year-old when he was also a teenager. The Congressional hearing could decide whether Kavanaugh receives a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the United States. It’s also shaping up to be a big-top moment in the ongoing circus that is American politics.

Christine Blasey Ford, a clinical psychology professor, claimed in an interview on Sept. 16 that a “stumbling drunk” Kavanaugh pulled her into a bedroom and clumsily attempted to rape her at house party when he was 17. Kavanaugh has denied the incident, and both will testify under oath before the Senate, Republicans said on Sept. 17. Last night, Ford’s lawyers said in a letter to senators that “a full investigation by law enforcement officials” should happen before she testifies, but Republicans are rejecting that idea.

Whoever testifies on Sept. 24, the hearing is shaping up as the most public debate yet on America’s “Me Too” reckoning—one that will take place before a committee of mostly men.

In 49 days, the November midterm elections could determine the future of the Trump presidency. It’s a crucial time for both parties, and the hearing highlights how dug in each side of the US Congress is, and how divided US voters remain. Already, battle lines are being drawn along familiar and unfamiliar lines.

Democrats vs. Republicans

Even before the assault accusation against Kavanaugh was made public, Democrats had been calling his confirmation hearings a fight for democracy itself. They seemed to serve as proxy for all the issues deciding the November midterms, including the conservative push to limit abortion rights, civil liberties, and corporate regulations. Already, advertisers on both sides had spent unprecedented amounts on ads for and against Kavanaugh:

Ford’s statement has also spurred new ads; the Judicial Crisis Network calls her accusation ”a last-minute smear campaign [to] destroy a good and decent man who has an unblemished personal record.”

Underscoring the fight for Democrats is a deep sense of injustice over the Supreme Court seat that stayed open for more than seven months at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. Many Judiciary Committee Republicans involved in Kavanaugh’s hearing were the first to refuse consideration of Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, an unprecedented denial of presidential rights.

Democrats vs. the Justice Department

Even before Ford’s lawyer asked for  law enforcement to step in, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee were demanding that the Federal Bureau of Investigation look into Ford’s allegations, which are more than 30 years old.

The FBI says that’s not its role, as the allegation “does not involve any potential federal crime.” In response to the FBI’s statement, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said he wasn’t “asking to open a criminal investigation, but to have the FBI re-open and complete the standard background investigation for someone who has been nominated for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.”

The White House is unlikely to authorize such a probe, though—on Tuesday, Trump seconded that it wasn’t the FBI’s job.

Republicans vs. Republicans

Key to Kavanaugh’s being confirmed is keeping Senate Republicans, who have 51 seats, completely aligned. Two dissenters are the reason Monday’s public hearing could even happen. Jeff Flake, the retiring Arizona member of the Judiciary Committee, and Bob Corker, the retiring Tennessee senator, signaled early-on that they wouldn’t vote for Kavanaugh without a hearing on the accusation. They were followed by Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins from Maine, who said on Tuesday that lawyers for both Kavanaugh and Ford should be able to question each other’s clients. If two of those four senators ultimately decide to vote against Kavanaugh, his Supreme Court dreams are over.

Kavanaugh wasn’t the top Supreme Court pick for pivotal Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, or for many Christian evangelicals (the latter were supporting Amy Coney Barrett). The accusation against Kavanaugh, and the difficult confirmation hearings he’s already been through, have raised further questions about his candidacy.

“The GOP is in this position because it tried to punt on a fight it’s base wanted with Amy Barrett, again,” Steve Deace, a Christian conservative radio show host, complained on Twitter. “Just like it punted on immigration, Obamacare, and Planned Parenthood.”

The influential Koch network, meanwhile, is refusing to take sides. “Any allegation of this type should be taken seriously,” said Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-funded think tank, in a statement. The statement noted that the group previously supported Kavanaugh “based on his impeccable qualifications, decades of experience, and his extensive record of defending the Constitution and the rule of law,” but would await the Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Monday.

Democrats vs. Democrats

Whether the Democrats and Obama could have tried harder to full Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat has been the subject of bitter inter-party squabbling since before the 2016 election. How they handled Ford’s allegations—Democrats were first alerted to the claim in a July letter that requested anonymity—set off another round of infighting in recent days.

Kevin de Leon, the Democratic challenger for Senate Judiciary Committee minority leader Dianne Feinstein’s seat in November, accused Feinstein of a “failure of leadership” for waiting several months to give Ford’s letter to the authorities. Meanwhile, the Democrats need to maintain a cohesive 49-seat voting block in the Senate if they have any chance of defeating Kavanaugh. Key votes will come from those in Republican-leaning states who are up for election in November.

#MeToo vs. “Boys Will Be Boys”

Beyond the political fighting and infighting, Kavanaugh’s hearing arrives as harassment and assault accusations against powerful men keep coming to light. Just as revelations about Harvey Weinstein, household-name chefs, and the broadcast news industry prompted women to come forward with stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, so has Ford’s story empowered many to recount incidents that took place at parties or in high school. Generation X victims (like Ford) are sharing incidents from the 1980s, before the concept of “date rape” even existed, and when teenage girls might have been even even more inclined to blame themselves, and less inclined to contact authorities then they are now.

Demand Justice, an activist group, quickly set up a website called ”I believe Christine Blasey.” The Times Up group distributed buttons with the same slogan at the Emmy’s this weekend. Over 200 alumnae of Ford’s high school have signed a letter saying they believe her accusations—meanwhile, 65 women who knew Kavanaugh in high school signed a letter defending his character—and pro-Blasey protests have been held outside the Supreme Court.

Senator Orrin Hatch, 84, a Republican from Utah, summed up the deeply entrenched views of many older men on Sept. 17, when he said that Kavanaugh had denied the incident, and Ford might just be confused. “Well, he didn’t do that,” Hatch said, chuckling, “and he wasn’t at the party, so…”

It’s not just octogenarian congressmen. Carrie Severino, a spokeswoman for Judicial Crisis Network, said Tuesday that perhaps what happened was a form of “rough horseplay.”

The internet vs. decency

The contentious situation hits all the hot-button issues that seem to breed internet conspiracies. Hours after Ford’s name was made public on Sept. 16, her home address had been published on right-wing websites, and some of the darker conspiracy-theory sites had made a porn bot to represent her, the Daily Beast reports.

One fast-spreading right-wing rumor said that Kavanaugh’s mother, also a judge, had foreclosed on Ford’s parents’ house. (She hadn’t, as the conservative Washington Examiner points out.)

The White House vs. itself

The Trump White House has been confronted with accusations of sexual assault by its allies and employees several times, and Trump has a predictable defense: Double down, and attack the accusers. When Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore was accused of sexual assault by several Trump-voting women who were young teens when the alleged assaults occurred, the president said Moore was to be believed because he “said he didn’t do it.” When Rob Portman, a White House aide, was accused of beating his wives, Trump told reporters, “He says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that.”

This time, things are slightly different. White House special counselor Kellyanne Conway insisted Ford be “heard” on Monday, and Trump echoed those sentiments to the media later, conceding that Kavanaugh’s confirmation should be postponed. Both Ford and Kavanaugh should “state their case” in the Senate hearing, Trump said during a Tuesday press conference, and then the Senate should vote.

Since Ford’s name was made public, Trump’s Twitter feed has been a steady stream of anti-China, anti-FBI, and pro-Trump rally themes, with nary a mention of Kavanaugh or Ford. However, Tuesday he called Kavanaugh is a “great judge, with an impeccable history in every way.” Added Trump: ”I feel so badly for him that he’s going through this.”