Because Republicans control the Senate Judiciary Committee, and overwhelmingly want to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Thursday’s hearing over Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation of sexual assault against the judge was structured to disadvantage Democrats at every turn. Against her wishes, Ford was compelled to testify first, allowing Kavanaugh to rebut her and denying Democrats the opportunity to question her about his testimony. Democrats were also not permitted to question Mark Judge, Kavanaugh’s high school friend who allegedly participated in the assault. And, worst of all, each senator had just five minutes to ask questions of both witnesses. That’s hardly enough time for a substantive interrogation of Kavanaugh, a master filibusterer who supplemented every statement with confrontational bluster.
In light of these restraints, Democrats could have played their hand strategically. They could have allowed a handful of senators to ask all their questions, much like Republican senators brought in an outside prosecutor to question Ford. They could have coordinated their queries so that each senator focused on one area where Kavanaugh’s credibility is dubious. Or they could have carefully examined the accusations and asked piercing questions that might force Kavanaugh to provide something other than a flat denial.
But they did none of that. Instead, the Democrats fixated on objections to the process—most notably, the lack of an FBI investigation into Ford’s claims—and repeated the same bad questions over and over again. It was a wasted opportunity that let Kavanaugh walk away without clarifying the major problems with his side of the story.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking member, got off to a weak start by failing to lay out the precise circumstances under which she, and the public, learned of Ford’s allegations. This oversight allowed Republicans to malign her as a leaker by insinuating that she or one of her staffers strategically hid the letter, then leaked it to the press at the last moment. Only at the end of the hearing did Feinstein neutralize this talking point, explaining that she had delayed acting on the letter because Ford requested confidentiality, and that neither she nor her staff leaked it. (The Intercept’s Ryan Grim, who first reported on the letter, confirmed this.) Had the senator laid these facts out at the beginning of the hearing, her colleagues could’ve rebutted Republicans by noting that Feinstein had simply honored her constituent’s wishes, and that it was the GOP that was rushing the confirmation process rather than permitting time for a real investigation.
To be sure, such an investigation would’ve helped to gauge the truth of Ford’s claims. An FBI interrogation of Mark Judge, for instance, would reveal a great deal more than his brief statement to the committee. But it is also apparent that Republicans will not solicit the aid of the FBI. Why, then, did a majority of Democratic senators ask Kavanaugh to demand one? What, exactly, were these appeals supposed to accomplish? Even if Kavanaugh called Donald Trump at Thursday’s hearing and pleaded for an investigation—as Sen. Dick Durbin more or less asked—the president would say no. And then what? Kavanaugh made clear in his opening remarks that he would not withdraw. Democrats’ fixation on his refusal to insist on an FBI investigation barely undermines his credibility—when their chief goal on Thursday should’ve been calling his candor into doubt.
Here are some of the topics that Democrats could’ve focused on—but inexplicably didn’t—that might have actually sowed uncertainty about the nominee’s veracity:
• Did Kavanaugh speak with his good friend Ed Whelan about Whelan’s outrageous theory of mistaken identity, which blamed Ford’s alleged assault on a classmate? If not, who did Kavanaugh talk to about the mistaken-identity hypothesis? The Washington Post has reported that he discussed it with “allies.” Which ones?
• Does Kavanaugh know who fed the name of one of his high school classmates to Whelan before Whelan tweeted out his theory? Whelan, who didn’t go to high school in or near Washington, somehow ended up with the name of someone in Kavanaugh’s social circle who looked somewhat like him and lived in the area where Ford said the assault occurred. How? Was Kavanaugh aware of the plan to smear his classmate?
• What did Kavanaugh mean when he claimed that Ford’s accusation against him had been “coordinated” by Democrats and left-wing interest groups? This question would have been difficult for him to answer because it wasn’t “coordinated”; Ford brought her accusation to the Washington Post and to the attention of Congress on her own. The only person to pursue this line of questioning was Sen. Cory Booker, who did so quite effectively. His interrogation was the moment Kavanaugh looked most cornered, and it should not have stood alone.
• Why did Kavanaugh say that no entry on his detailed July 1982 calendar matched Ford’s description of the party at which she was allegedly assaulted? The calendar states that Kavanaugh went “to Timmy’s for skis w/Judge, Tom, PJ, Bernie, Squi” on July 1, 1982, squarely within the time frame put forth by Ford. She also identified “PJ” (a man named Patrick Smyth) and Judge as being present at the party—before seeing Kavanaugh’s calendar. Doesn’t this July 1 gathering thus fit Ford’s account quite neatly?
• Why did Kavanaugh repeatedly and falsely claim that he had been accused of being in a “gang”? Presumably, he was referring to Julie Swetnick’s allegation that he associated with boys who took advantage of intoxicated women, including through “gang rapes.” Was he aware of any classmates who engaged in such behavior? If not, how does he explain a claim by Judge’s ex-girlfriend that Judge said he “and the other boys [took] turns having sex with a drunk woman”?
These oversights are inexcusable, as was Democrats’ willingness to let Kavanaugh manipulate the narrative to depict himself as a victim. They should have oriented their questions around Ford’s central claim—that Kavanaugh shouldn’t be on the Supreme Court because he allegedly attempted to rape her—and on framing her disclosure accurately as the act of a concerned private citizen who felt obligated to speak up. Instead, they allowed Kavanaugh to turn Ford into an almost peripheral figure to his story of victimhood.
Obviously, it is not Democrats who are attempting to push Kavanaugh toward a lifetime Supreme Court appointment in the face of credible sexual assault allegations. The blame for this disaster cannot be laid at their feet. But their questions on Thursday did remarkably little to help Ford stop Kavanaugh, which was, of course, Democrats’ goal. Their bumbling, repetitive inquiries largely left her to fend for herself.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.