The most high-stakes Senate hearing of the year has been scheduled, but no one really wants to have it.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that “we want to give the accuser,” Christine Blasey Ford, “an opportunity to be heard.” That’s supposedly why he and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley decided late Monday afternoon that they would hold a public hearing featuring testimony from both Ford and the man she said assaulted her in high school, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, in a week.
Rest assured, though, that McConnell does not want to “give the accuser an opportunity to be heard” out of any sense of moral responsibility. He’s doing it because he doesn’t have the votes otherwise. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake specifically told leadership that he would vote “no” in committee on Kavanaugh’s nomination without a public hearing. Even if McConnell chose to bypass the committee process, he would run into interference from other key senators, like Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Rarely is a surface-level moral posture from Mitch McConnell anything more than a reflection of a poor whip count.
Most Republicans would have preferred not to have an open hearing, which is why Grassley tried earlier this week to satisfy senators by arranging private phone calls with Kavanaugh and Ford instead. There are a couple of obvious reasons why: In public, Ford could deliver credible testimony that would be covered widely, making the option of advancing Kavanaugh’s nomination even more politically toxic than it’s already become. And it wouldn’t help the all-male Republican membership of the Judiciary Committee to aggressively attack Ford’s credibility or character, either. (HuffPost reports that Republicans are considering having their female staff do the questioning, an unorthodox move that would just draw more attention to the problem.)
You might think, then, that Senate Democrats would be pleased with how Flake, Collins, Murkowski, and others forced Grassley and McConnell’s hands into providing Ford the opportunity for a public hearing. Instead, at a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Senate Democrats called the proposed hearing a “sham.”
“Scheduling the hearing for Monday, a week from when Dr. Ford made her accusations public,” Washington Sen. Patty Murray said, “is a shameful attempt to jam this through without giving anyone the time they need to investigate and put together the questions that need to be asked.” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Judiciary Committee member, said that “Republican leadership has completely disrespected this survivor.”
“This proceeding is more like something out of Russia than the United States of America,” Blumenthal, pressing his luck, declared.
Democrats listed several conditions that Republicans would need to meet. They should first wait until the FBI completes a full investigation into the matter so that senators aren’t, as Blumenthal told me, just “shooting in the dark” during their questioning. Democrats are also apoplectic that Grassley has refused to call Mark Judge, the lone witness to the alleged assault Ford described in her letter and to the Washington Post, to testify. Judge has a rather unfortunate trail of writings.
There are a few reasons why Democrats might be throwing cold water on the sort of hearing that Republicans have offered. The first is political: The longer this confirmation process can be delayed, the less likely Senate Republicans would be to confirm a replacement ahead of the midterms. Yes, Republicans could and likely would try to complete it during the lame-duck session, especially if Democrats take back the Senate. But Democrats have some hope—a hope I don’t put much faith in—that a couple of retiring or “Never Trump” Republicans might balk at such an aggressive power grab.
But this isn’t all politics. For instance, there’s zero nonpolitical reason that an alleged eyewitness shouldn’t be heard. Judge’s lawyer sent a letter to Grassley on Tuesday afternoon saying that he did not “wish” to speak any further publicly, as if this committee should care about his wishes. But Grassley seems content to honor them. And it’s not unreasonable to think that having an outside investigation into the matter—“preparation,” the Democrats call it—ahead of the hearing is best for a fair outcome.
The Democrats’ objections also serve as a pre-buttal—that this hearing was rigged against Ford from the start—in the event that Ford doesn’t appear. Because, as of Tuesday afternoon, Ford’s lawyers still hadn’t confirmed that she would attend next Monday’s spectacle and have offered sparse commentary on what’s the holdup.
It could be that there’s a simple scheduling issue for either Ford or her legal team. As various Democrats noted in their press conference, Grassley didn’t ask Ford if she was free next Monday before making his announcement. Ford could also have cold feet. In either case, as California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters Tuesday morning, “We don’t even know if Dr. Ford is able to make it.”
The possibility that Ford might not appear put a bit of a spring in Republicans’ step by Tuesday afternoon. Grassley’s office sent out numerous statements about how eager it was to hold the hearing—if only Ford’s team would call back. Texas Sen. John Cornyn’s did the same. “So far, Dr. Ford’s lawyer has refused to respond to invitations to participate,” Cornyn said at a GOP press conference. “We certainly hope that she takes advantage of this opportunity if she still would like to.”
Of course he doesn’t. Republicans would love nothing more than if Ford didn’t appear. They could still hold a hearing for Kavanaugh to deliver his denials while Democrats spin their wheels, and then vote on him in committee on Wednesday. Even Flake, who demanded the hearing, told CNN on Tuesday that he would support advancing Kavanaugh’s nomination if Ford didn’t show up. His colleagues agreed.
“The committee should move on,” Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker said, should Ford “have the opportunity to be heard, and not be heard.”
“It would be viewed very negatively by many,” he continued, “for someone to be given an opportunity after making serious allegations and then not coming.” It’s clear that Republicans would treat that as an effective withdrawal of the allegations. This is the most obvious way Republicans would salvage Kavanaugh’s nomination, which they showed no signs of wanting to abandon on Tuesday.
So each party does want a hearing after all. Republicans want one immediately where Ford doesn’t show up and Kavanaugh just denies everything. Democrats want one with Ford, but maybe in several weeks, months, or years down the road, following a complete outside investigation, and with a roster of witnesses, preferably once they control the Senate, or maybe never. Everyone’s on the same page, as usual.