As the Republican’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday afternoon, to defend himself against accusations of sexual assault, America was gripped. Neither his testimony nor that of his accuser, Dr Christine Blasey Ford, who spoke this morning, is likely to be practically decisive – his confirmation still hinges on a vote in the Senate, which the GOP controls. But it did provide a remarkable synecdoche of America’s political climate: the worth of a woman’s words when levelled against those of a powerful man. It was the Me Too movement in real time, a literal he-said she-said moment played out in front of a vast audience.
In the morning Ford had given her testimony, submitting to cross-examination by an outside counsel, Rachel Mitchell, on behalf of the all-male Republican slate of senators on the committee. Across the country, America was glued to the spectacle. On flights across the country, people watched it on their airplane screens.
But while Ford’s testimony was remarkable largely for her dignity and courage, Kavanaugh’s testimony was testy, shouty, and at times tearful, as the Republicans on the committee slowly sidelined Mitchell to start shouting at the Democrats.
Kavanaugh’s opening statement was made in a peculiar aggressive cadence. He appeared to shout random words, struggling to control his voice. “Thank you for allowing me to make my statement,” he opened. “I wrote it MYSELF.”
He spoke forcefully, like a head-teacher telling off a whole school assembly. “MY family and MY name have been PERMANENTLY and TOTALLY destroyed,” he intoned. “I was NOT at the party described by Dr. Ford,” he said. “This confirmation process has become a national disgrace.” He said that the Senate had “replaced advise and consent with ‘search and destroy’.” His struck the aggrieved, pearl-clutching tone associated with the likes of the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and displayed an equally outsized and fragile ego as he veered between sulking tearfulness and hectoring shouts. Yet many will have watched convinced that he is a wronged man.
“This has destroyed my family and my good name,” he went on, characterising the allegations against him as “crazy stuff. Gangs. Illegitimate children. Fights on boats in Rhode Island.” He said they were a conspiracy of “revenge by the Clintons.” Compared with Ford’s composure earlier, at times Kavanaugh seemed hysterical as he denied the mounting allegations against him, often having to stop speaking in order to hold back sobs as tears welled in his eyes and his lip trembled.
As the hearing dragged on for hour after hour, Kavanaugh became less tearful and more angry, hectoring Democratic senators who attempted to question him. He kept talking about his calendar, which Kavanaugh appears to believe represents a compelling piece of evidence to exonerate him, since the party at which the assault on Ford allegedly occurred was not written on it. He described how he had “lots of close female friends,” one of whom, Kavanaugh said, was even a victim of sexual assault herself.
During questioning, Democrats kept returning to one major theme: asking for a full FBI investigation into the mounting claims against Kavanaugh. Since Ford went public with her testimony, three other women have come forward to accuse Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick of sexual misconduct.
Senator Dick Durbin came closest to drawing blood on the FBI investigation question. “Will you support an FBI investigation right now?” Durbin asked. “I’ll do whatever the committee says,” Kavanaugh said. “Yes, but you personally, what do you think the right thing to do would be,” Durbin shot back. There was a long silence.
The silence was broken by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who saved Kavanaugh’s bacon by going on a lengthy and animated rant. “Are you aware that at 9:23, 23 minutes after your nomination, Chuck Schumer said ‘I will oppose your nomination with everything I have’?” Graham asked Kavanaugh, before turning to the Democrats. “If you wanted an FBI investigation you could have come to us,” Graham said to them.
He wasn’t done. “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” he stormed. “Boy, y’all want power, and I hope you never get it.” Graham’s anger seemed bizarre, until it became clear who his true audience was: the White House. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders quickly tweeted that Graham “has more decency and courage than every Democrat member of the committee combined. God bless him.”
After Graham’s outburst, the Republican senators started grandstanding themselves, abandoning all pretense of using Mitchell, their prosecutor, to ask questions of Kavanaugh as she had for Ford. In their eyes she had already served her purpose, which was to solve the image problem generated by a panel of all white, all male Republican senators questioning an alleged victim of sexual assault, and so by the time of Kavanaugh’s testimony that afternoon the political circus could begin in earnest.
Jeff Flake, the Republican senator from Arizona who is retiring and has been an outspoken critic of Trump, making him one of the few GOP members considered to be a wavering vote on Kavanaugh, spoke almost last. “This is not a good process, but it’s all we’ve got, and I would just urge our colleagues to recognise that in the end we are 21 imperfect senators,” he said, somewhat cryptically. “There is likely to be as much doubt as certainty going out of this room today.”
“There is doubt: we will never move beyond that. [We must] have a little humility on that front,” he added.
Whether that means Flake’s vote is now in question is entirely unclear. But what Flake thinks will be key to where this whole process goes next.
Ultimately, it is unclear what Thursday’s hearing will change. If no Republican senators change their minds then Kavanaugh will still have the votes to be confirmed by the Senate on Friday. That’s why Flake’s comments are likely to be pored over. He holds the power to change events. Few others do.
So the whole marathon spectacle could end up being sound and fury, signifying nothing. Almost at the very end, Senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, asked if Kavanaugh had watched Ford’s testimony. “I did not,” Kavanaugh replied.