Considering the heavy-handed behaviour of the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, it is unsurprising that all ten Democrats on the committee have formally requested a postponement of Thursday’s planned vote on the confirmation of Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, after allegations of sexual impropriety surfaced against the judge surfaced over the weekend.
But more importantly, several Republican senators – including Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee – also called on Sunday for the vote to be delayed. This could present the White House with a serious obstacle in what they had thought would be a clear path to his nomination.
On Sunday, the Washington Post published an interview with Christine Blasey Ford, who had earlier written a letter to Nancy Pelosi, the senior Democrat on the committee, alleging that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her while they were in high school.
The Post detailed the allegations:
While his friend watched, she said, Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed on her back and groped her over her clothes, grinding his body against hers and clumsily attempting to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she wore over it. When she tried to scream, she said, he put his hand over her mouth.
“I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” said Ford, now a 51-year-old research psychologist in northern California. “He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing.”
Kavanaugh denies the allegations, and has said he will refute them before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Democrats had already been trying to delay Kavanaugh’s confirmation, because thousands of documents detailing his time as a lawyer in the George W. Bush White House had been dumped on them at the last minute before his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
If Thursday’s vote goes ahead, and if it passes, Kavanaugh’s appointment will then go before a vote of the whole Senate. The Republican majority in the chamber is just one vote, so even a single defection from the GOP has the potential to kill his nomination. Both Flake and Corker are retiring at the end of their terms, and have been outspoken against the Trump administration – though both have remained in the Republican party and, despite their condemnatory rhetoric, have continued to vote with the President.
But this is a hint that this might be about to change. The new allegations against Kavanaugh have echoes of the hearings to nominate Clarence Thomas to the court in 1991, when Anita Hill, a former employee of Thomas’s, came forward with allegations of sexual harassment. Thomas was confirmed despite Hill’s testimony, but the episode sparked a national conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace (Thomas himself has always denied the allegations). If 2018 is anything to go by, little appears to have been learned from that conversation.
Most Republicans on the committee, supported by the White House, still seem intent on forcing Kavanaugh’s confirmation through. But if Corker and Flake are serious, the Republican majority in the Senate is narrow enough that they might be able to force a delay on the committee vote for long enough to hear testimony from Ford.
“I’ve made it clear that I’m not comfortable moving ahead with the vote on Thursday if we have not heard her side of the story or explored this further,” said Flake, who sits on the Judiciary Committee. If he stands by those words, his vote alone would be enough to force them to allow Ford to appear.
Two other Republican senators – Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins – are also thought to be possible wavering votes on Kavanaugh, a doctrinaire conservative judge recommended by the right-wing Federalist Society. On Monday, Collins joined Flake and Corker in calling for the vote to be delayed:
Professor Ford and Judge Kavanaugh should both testify under oath before the Judiciary Committee.
— Sen. Susan Collins (@SenatorCollins) September 17, 2018
Collins has previously said that she would not vote for a nominee who wanted to overturn Roe vs Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case which enshrined abortion rights in America, though after a meeting with Kavanaugh earlier in summer Collins said that she was satisfied with Kavanaugh’s position on the subject. However, some of Kavanaugh’s answers to questions during the hearing may have thrown that into doubt.
Certainly, activists are terrified, with good reason, about what Kavanaugh’s appointment to the court could mean for women’s rights, as well as for possible arbitration of executive privilege. But the stakes are high for Republicans too. Kavanaugh has said previously that he believes a sitting president cannot be indicted, so it is easy to see how the White House would want to ensure his nomination before the midterm elections in November. There is a small but real chance that an anti-Trump “blue wave” could remove Congress from Republican control entirely, which would mean the spectre of impeachment would likely become a daily reality for the president.
The House of Representatives, which polling suggests is likely to change hands from Republican to Democrat, does not oversee judicial nominations. Taking control of the Senate, which does, is set to be a more difficult electoral challenge, but with close races in Nevada and even Texas, such an outcome is not impossible to foresee. That means the White House will likely pull out all the stops to get Kavanaugh confirmed, as if it doesn’t it may not get another chance.
Flake and Corker, since they announced their retirements and began speaking critically of the president, have been the target of much Trumpian rage at rallies and on Twitter. If they sink his Supreme Court nomination, that would be the sweetest revenge. But it is never wise to assume courage on the part of GOP lawmakers. So far, despite their criticisms, Flake and Corker have refrained from actually crossing the aisle. It is entirely possible that they will eventually toe the party line.
Nonetheless, if Ford is allowed to testify, it would be an electrifying moment which would lay out in the clearest possible terms how much the congressional Republicans are willing to ignore in order to win. If that hypocrisy is laid bare in such unanswerable terms, maybe some like Flake or Corker will finally find their spines in time to stop Trump from cementing his agenda by packing America’s highest court.