Republicans Engineered a “She Said, He Said” Hearing, and It Turned Out Just How They Wanted

Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Michael Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images and Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images.

Senate Republicans didn’t want to talk early in the afternoon on Thursday, when they were on a break from Christine Blasey Ford’s riveting testimony. Majority Whip John Cornyn tersely told reporters to get out of his way as he walked through the Senate platform. Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, who is known to offer reporters homespun quips for an hour if they can tolerate it, wouldn’t comment. The best any Republican members of the Judiciary Committee could do was some version of “I’m continuing to watch the testimony.”

The pursed lips were understandable: Ford’s flawless testimony was killing their Supreme Court nominee in real time. When she finished about an hour later, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s televised meltdown over the Democratic “ambush” encapsulated the general feeling within the GOP.

About six hours later, though, after an irate stem-winder from Brett Kavanaugh that appeared to catch Judiciary Committee Democrats off guard, Republicans felt back on track. When Graham, who put on his own show of rage during the hearing, entered the GOP conference’s 7:15 meeting to discuss it all, he was greeted with applause.

And so, the most wrenching day I’ve ever witnessed on Capitol Hill ended about the same way that it began: with Republican leaders confident that Kavanaugh will be confirmed, even if they don’t have the votes just yet.

“[Kavanaugh] made it clear that he was willing to stake his credibility, his reputation, and his family on a categorical denial,” a convinced Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of the Republican leadership, told me afterwards.

“There’s still no corroborating evidence,” Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 Republican, told reporters. This was among the GOP senators’ favorite talking points. Never mind that they themselves had blocked that corroborating evidence—from subpoenaed witnesses or an outside investigation—from being gathered. Republicans intentionally set up a he-said-she-said, and unsurprisingly they are going with their guy.

“He’s going to be confirmed,” Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch told me. “And he should be.”

I asked him if he had any doubts about Kavanaugh during Ford’s testimony.

“No,” he said. “No, I think she’s sincere. I didn’t have any problem with that. I liked her. But she’s just sincerely wrong.”

Democratic aides afterwards all agreed that Ford was as good as they could have imagined, but they differed on Kavanaugh’s performance. Some thought he came off as far too angry and unstable. But others observed it the way I did: Anger was his only shot, and he may have pulled it off. It was what he needed to do to galvanize Republicans behind him, positioning himself against a ruthless Democratic smear machine. As his observation about Democrats seeking “revenge” on behalf of the Clintons—still can’t believe he said that—showed so clearly, he’s a Republican operative at heart. He needed to make it impossible for any sitting Republican to  abandon the base.

So did he?

It still comes down to Sens. Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, and Jeff Flake. The last of that trio is a member of the Judiciary Committee, but aside from the single minute he took during Kavanaugh’s testimony to make an observation about how there would always be “doubt” surrounding the nominee’s confirmation process—no kidding, Jeff—he kept his comments to himself.

Murkowski and Collins were in witness protection all day, cooped up in the unmarked “hideaways” senators maintain in the Capitol building away from their formal offices. I failed to uncover either critical Republican senator during numerous strolls through the winding basement complex that I took throughout the day, but found Collins’ spokeswoman and asked if her boss would be coming through too.

“You wish,” was all she said.

After the hearing, CNN reported that Collins, Murkowski, Flake, and conservative Democrat Joe Manchin were huddled together to talk it over. Politico reported, too, that Manchin, Collins, Murkowski, and Indiana Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly would be voting as a bloc, one way or another. That doesn’t make much practical difference: If Republicans have the votes on their own, it’s always been a possibility that another Democrat or two will join them, but Democrats won’t save the nomination if Murkowski and Collins vote no.

Murkowski, leaving the Capitol, said that she wanted to “go home, have dinner, and have a chance to think about all that’s gone on today.” Neither she nor Collins will have to make a decision until Saturday, when the first procedural vote is scheduled to go to the Senate floor. Flake, however, will have to make one by tomorrow morning when the committee meets to consider the nomination. Even if Flake sides with the Democrats, Kavanaugh could still get a floor vote, but a dramatic Flake vote against the nominee in committee could pave the way for another defector too.

Kavanaugh’s performance, though, ensured that the entire Republican apparatus will be working Flake into the morning to keep him from doing that. And his history of resisting that pressure isn’t so great.