While refusing anything so prosaic as an actual FBI investigation (which Anita Hill’s claims received when Clarence Thomas was a nominee), Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have reached a tentative agreement to hear the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, via a baroque negotiation that insists on their competence to “investigate” something like this while functionally stripping themselves of the power to actually investigate it. According to the few details we had as of the weekend, the GOP has agreed to speak only to the man and woman concerned, thus confirming that there can only ever be a “he said” and a “she said”—a situation they claim to deplore even as they deliberately engineer it. (Despite repeated requests by Ford, they have so far refused to subpoena any potential witnesses, of which there are several—even though they might theoretically help Kavanaugh’s case, since they’ve said they have no memory of the party Ford describes.) But no: Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans insist that there’s no need for witnesses, or an FBI investigation. They are constitutionally empowered to conduct this inquiry, committee leadership says.
This is not a serious approach to Ford’s allegations, and senior Republicans have as much as admitted they have no intention of letting Ford’s account factor into their votes. “What am I supposed to do, go ahead and ruin this guy’s life based on an accusation?” Sen. Lindsey Graham hyperbolized on Fox News Sunday—an unintentionally clear invocation of the fact that for powerful white men, not getting a promotion is what counts as life-ruining. Still, he said, “she should come forward. She should have her say. She will be respectfully treated.” This is contradictory rot. And this worldview—not the allegation alone—is partly what’s on trial right now. The habits of mind that make it possible to tell a woman you plan to ignore everything she says and call that “respectful treatment” are the same as those that allow the Lindsey Grahams and Orrin Hatches of the world to call men like Rob Porter “decent.”
It’s worth watching, then, how the GOP implodes through the internal pressure of their own oxymoronic mixed messaging: loudly announcing their indifference to a nominee’s alleged attempted rape while just as loudly promising to investigate it. They hope (and even more remarkably, expect) that the tentative hearing they’ve agreed to will offer decent cover for their preordained votes. On the other side of all this is Ford, whose account has not changed, and who has—after suffering an inundation of threats—had to go into hiding while trying to negotiate with an intimidating and hostile body the conditions under which she will testify. On Friday, the day Grassley demanded she answer him in one of several ultimatums, she was meeting with the FBI over death threats she’d received.
Republicans on the outside, meanwhile, have generated a hurricane of stories to refute Ford’s allegation that she was assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh when they were teenagers. There are roughly four. A) There is no proof, and we cannot know what happened. B) It didn’t happen, and she’s a liar. C) It happened, but attempted rape really isn’t that big a deal. And D) the “evil twin” theory: It happened, but her attacker was someone else. (I hesitate to even mention E, but it exists: According to Ben Carson, this is a centuries-old plot by 19th-century socialists to take over America.)
I have written about C, but today I want to examine D—a line of thinking as diabolical in practice as strategic in theory, and the twisted natural result of this effort to take the accuser seriously while discrediting her. Easily the most surprising theory to emerge in this exculpatory carnival around Kavanaugh is one holding that Ford was indeed assaulted; she’s just wrong about who did it! This position ostensibly requires one to accept Ford’s account, believing her every word except her memory of who the assailant was. The advantage of this theory is that it’s palatable: It avoids calling a woman who seems credible a liar.
The seeds of this argument began to trickle out as early as Sept. 17, when Sen. Orrin Hatch shared his theory that Ford must be “mistaken.” That same day, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board had written about “the vagaries of memory” and suggested that “mistaken identity is also possible.” (Research shows that the core of traumatic memory is more certain, not less.) Kavanaugh himself told Sen. Orrin Hatch that Ford had the wrong guy. On Tuesday, Ed Whelan, president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, promised “compelling evidence” that would vindicate his good friend and old George W. Bush administration colleague Brett Kavanaugh. The next day, Whelan tweeted out Kathleen Parker’s op-ed for the Washington Post—which proposed that, per Occam’s razor, Kavanaugh must have had an evil twin.
Then Thursday night, Whelan took the evil-twin theory and made it a real live boy. His speculation—which he published on Twitter after several conservative commentators had hyped it in advance, and whose particulars I will spare you—was as far-fetched and wild-eyed as True Detective and just as hollow. His Twitter thread culminated by strongly implying—while denying it was implying—that a classmate of Kavanaugh’s who vaguely resembled him was probably responsible for the attack on Ford. Once this shockingly irresponsible account came out, GOP reps tried to distance themselves. Well: not immediately. Some conservative pundits thought there must be more to it—understandably, since Whelan is a powerful and respected figure in conservative legal circles, and what he put forth was garbage.
But even after Whelan apologized for his theory, which was quickly recognized as such radioactive nonsense he’s been put on a leave of absence by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, questions remain about its genesis. The theory is developing into a second scandal, in other words: If Whelan’s good friend Kavanaugh, say, had anything to do with this effort to frame a classmate to exonerate himself, well—it would be beyond disqualifying. It will be important, going forward, to establish who knew about this particularly vicious version of the evil twin theory. So far, it’s unclear. Whelan denied that he shared the specifics of his plan with the White House and Kavanaugh, but he left out the Senate. It feels improbable that he would have cooked up such a crazy concoction alone in a lab, with everyone else trumpeting it on blind faith.
And indeed, by Friday afternoon it turned out the lone wolf act was to be too good to be true: Whelan had at least been working with CRC Public Relations, a firm closely connected to the Federalist Society (which plays gatekeeper to conservative judicial picks) whose accomplishments include working with the Swift Boat Veterans in 2004 to crush John Kerry’s presidential run. Nor is Whelan’s claim to be working in isolation exactly bolstered by the revelation, made Friday night, that Whelan found Ford’s LinkedIn profile before her name had been made public. Within 90 minutes of the Washington Post’s privately sharing Ford’s name with a White House spokesman, Whelan had searched for and found her page. There are also questions about how Whelan somehow knew the address of the other party attendees and the name of the Kavanaugh classmate he potentially libeled.
Your mileage may vary, but that doesn’t sound—to me—like a lack of coordination.
Maybe all these people came up with the same ludicrously implausible evil-twin theory at the same time through sheer coincidence—kind of like how Leibniz and Newton just happened to invent calculus independently. Maybe Whelan was the only guy to take it to the “next level.” But whether this was conspiracy of coincidence matters less than the fact that the entire Kavanaugh apparatus seemed ready to take the evil-twin theory on board. This isn’t one man’s mistake. It’s systemic bad faith.
But the reality is that this is all an ugly, desperate mess. Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and his ilk have shown no desire to find the truth. Forced into a hearing at the insistence of senators like Jeff Flake and Lisa Murkowski, they’ve structured it not to bring the truth to light, but to do the least damage. Grassley refused Ford a real investigation on the grounds that the Senate is enough: “The job of assessing and investigating a nominee’s qualifications in order to decide whether to consent to the nomination is ours, and ours alone,” he said. And as he was saying this, the Chief Counsel for Nominations Mike Davis was writing, “Unfazed and determined. We will confirm Judge Kavanaugh,” in a since-deleted Tweet. They, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (“Kavanaugh will be on the Supreme Court”), couldn’t be clearer: This hearing is purely for show.
It’s worth trying to imagine what this must feel like to Ford. Hearing the Senate’s power brokers proclaim their refusal to even consider her testimony in their decision-making—she and her husband sleeping in hotels away from their children while Grassley accuses her of stalling and the Wall Street Journal and a clutch of other venues suggest, repeatedly and on the basis of nothing, not even a single testimony, that she has the wrong man. Imagine being vilified for false accusations and then watching those very people make their own. It’s to Ford’s credit that the same night Whelan’s thread went viral that she managed to issue a statement clarifying that she knew both Kavanaugh and the other boy. “There is zero chance that I would confuse them,” she said.
The woman whose alleged assault is about to be “investigated” by these strategy-crazed politicos has remained quiet but steadfast—even as she tries to inject a modicum of seriousness into the process by asking (for example) that they interrogate witnesses. As these guys proliferate theories and throw spaghetti at the wall, her account remains modest and incomplete but consistent.
The talk about “last-minute timing” is bilge: Her record on this is clear. She mentioned the attack to her therapist back in 2012. She contacted her representative about her concerns on July 6, when Kavanaugh was still just one of several potential nominees. She wrote to Sen. Dianne Feinstein at the end of July, requesting confidentiality, but finally came forward in September when it was clear her name was about to become public anyway. While Republicans posit secret societies, vast conspiracies, and evil twins, she has not changed her basic account, nor has she claimed to remember things she doesn’t. In response to Republican pressure, insinuation, and outright accusation, she has asserted her story and her right to fairness simply and directly. All she has done is request that her claim be investigated in full by competent authorities who can be believed to be acting in good faith.
Despite the GOP’s best effort to disparage her communications as delay tactics, Ford’s requests of the committee—asking for an independent investigation, requesting certain conditions for the hearing, some of which were denied, and then agreeing to testify with final details still being worked out as of Saturday—have been reasonable and prompt for an ordinary person gearing up to face what Anita Hill did almost three decades ago. Republican commentators disagree: They seem to think she couldn’t be asking time for herself; it must be for the sake of the Democrats who she’s been smeared as helping. In a system populated by amateur sleuths like Whelan and spokesmen like Garrett Ventry (who resigned Saturday as a Grassley adviser after previous accusations of sexual harassment surfaced—and also resigned from CRC Public Relations, where he’d taken leave to help with the Kavanaugh nomination), somehow she’s the conspiracy.
Republicans have done their level best to dissuade her from testifying without being too obvious (it’s hard to read their initial requirement that she testify at the same table as Kavanaugh any other way). In the interim, they’ve attempted to impugn her memory and muddy the waters with alternative theories. And yet, after all that, she’s planning to come.
If anything worthwhile can be rescued from the mangled rebar of our nominations process, it will be what this one says about how America handles a sexual misconduct allegation against a potential Supreme Court Justice 27 years after the previous one.