Politics

What Kavanaugh’s Drinking Tells Us About His Credibility

Republicans think Democrats are “moving the goalposts” to attack Kavanaugh’s habits. But understanding his behavior with alcohol is crucial.

Brett Kavanaugh
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on Thursday in Washington.
Andrew Harnik–Pool/Getty Images

Did Brett Kavanaugh drink a lot as a teenager? Is he lying about what he did while drunk? Should senators take that into account when voting on his confirmation to the Supreme Court? The answers to these questions are yes, yes, and yes.

There’s been a lot of indignation on the right, including from Kavanaugh, over questions about his drinking and what they have to do with his merits as a judge. Republicans think that Democrats, having failed to prove that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford in 1982, are “moving the goalposts“ to attack his personal habits. But Kavanaugh’s behavior around alcohol is central, not just to Ford’s story but also to Kavanaugh’s reliability as a narrator of his own conduct. And there’s increasing evidence that either he’s hiding what he did or he doesn’t remember.

A lot of news has come out in the past week about Kavanaugh’s drinking. Here’s how it fits together.

1. If Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge were drunk on the day that Ford claims they sexually assaulted her, their denials become less credible. If you don’t recall doing something, it’s possible that you didn’t do it. But it’s also possible that you did it and forgot about it. Lots of evidence from science and policing shows that heavy drinking significantly increases the probability of the latter scenario. According to Ford, the boys seemed to think what they were doing was sexual fun, not violence. That adds to the probability that while it was traumatic for her, it wasn’t particularly memorable for them.

2. There’s eyewitness testimony that Kavanaugh and Judge were drunk that day. The eyewitness is Ford. In a letter, an interview, and testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, she said Judge and Kavanaugh were “extremely inebriated“ and “stumbling drunk.” Ford said Kavanaugh was so intoxicated that he couldn’t get her clothes off. You could speculate that she’s mistaken or lying. But then you’d have to explain why she told the same story about “two drunken boys” six years ago, before Kavanaugh was on deck for the Supreme Court.

3. There’s corroborating evidence that Kavanaugh and Judge drank a lot. This isn’t evidence of assault, and it isn’t particular to the day in question. But it adds credibility to Ford’s claim that the two boys were drunk. In Judge’s case, the evidence is his alcoholic memoirs. In Kavanaugh’s case, the evidence includes his high school yearbook entry (“Keg City Club,” “100 Kegs or Bust,” “Beach Week Ralph Club”) and his tales about getting hammered in law school. In addition, “nearly a dozen people who knew him well or socialized with him” have told the New York Times that Kavanaugh “was a heavy drinker in college.” Classmates describe him as “slurring his words, stumbling,” “staggering,” and “frequently, incoherently drunk.” High school classmates also suggest that Kavanaugh drank more than he admits. And Kavanaugh’s 1982 calendar shows that on a weekday during the time frame of the alleged assault, he and Judge gathered with friends to drink beer in a setting much like the one Ford describes.

4. There’s corroborating evidence that Judge behaved aggressively toward women while drunk—and then forgot about it. Judge said he doesn’t recall the incident Ford has described. Kavanaugh said this shows both men are innocent. But when you consider Judge’s statement in the context of his history with alcohol, it suggests just the opposite: Judge may have forgotten his encounter with Ford. And that raises the possibility that his drinking buddy Kavanaugh may have done the same.

In his memoirs, Judge recalls that immediately after a wedding celebration, a friend said that Judge had “tried to make it with one of the bridesmaids.” Judge, who had no memory of the incident, pleaded with his friend: “Please tell me I didn’t hurt her.” In another case, Judge woke up from a blackout, thinking, “I could have done anything and not know it—I could have murdered somebody.” Judge confesses that when he drank, “It was as though there was a different version of myself—Mr. Hyde—who had taken over my body, and I couldn’t stop him.”

Together, these facts establish a basis to investigate whether Kavanaugh too behaved aggressively while drunk and forgot about it. Such questions aren’t idle, prurient, or a “fishing expedition.” They’re grounded in evidence particular to Kavanaugh and Judge, and they’re central to evaluating Kavanaugh’s reliability as a witness to his own innocence. So let’s consider the next two points, regarding Kavanaugh’s testimony about his conduct under the influence of alcohol.

5. Kavanaugh denies ever behaving aggressively while drinking. In last week’s hearing, Sen. Chris Coons asked Kavanaugh “whether you’ve ever gotten aggressive while drinking.” Kavanaugh replied, “I think the answer to that is basically no.” He pressed Coons for details—“What are you talking about?”—and went on: “ ‘No’ is the basic answer, unless you’re talking about something where—that I’m not aware of, that you’re going to ask about.” Kavanaugh seemed hesitant, leaving open the possibility that Coons might know of an incident Kavanaugh couldn’t recall. Nevertheless, Kavanaugh chose to say no.

6. Kavanaugh denies having forgotten anything that happened while he was drinking. In the hearing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar asked Kavanaugh, “Was there ever a time when you drank so much that you couldn’t remember what happened, or part of what happened, the night before? Kavanaugh replied: “No. I remember what happened.” Sen. Cory Booker followed up, asking Kavanaugh, “You said you never had gaps in memories. Never had any losses whatsoever. Never had foggy recollection about what happened. Is that correct, sir?” Kavanaugh replied, “That’s what I said.”

In giving these answers under oath, Kavanaugh gambled that nobody would produce evidence to the contrary. Perhaps he thought this wager was necessary in order to maintain his firm denial of what Ford alleges. But the bet hasn’t paid off. Here’s what we have learned in recent days.

7. Evidence shows Kavanaugh behaved aggressively while drinking. James Roche, Kavanaugh’s freshman roommate at Yale—that’s about a year after the alleged assault on Ford—said Kavanaugh became aggressive and belligerent when he was very drunk.” Chad Ludington, another classmate, reports the same observation. According to the Times, “Several Yale classmates recounted an incident” in which Kavanaugh, “after a bout of drinking … tried to break into the enclosed back of a pickup truck belonging to one of them, and later refused to apologize or repair the damage.” Another classmate, Lynne Brookes, describes a party at which Kavanaugh and his friend Chris Dudley got “very drunk” and decided “to barge into a room where a guy and girl had gone off together and embarrass that woman. … [T]hey thought it was funny. The girl was mortified.” This comic attitude echoes Ford’s story about Kavanaugh and Judge laughing as they humiliated her.

In addition to these accounts, a police report says that in 1985, Kavanaugh and Dudley were involved in a bar fight that sent a man to the hospital. One witness said Kavanaugh started the fight by throwing ice. Another said Dudley threw a glass, apparently causing a bloody injury. The report, outlined in the Times by Ben Protess and my longtime Slate colleague Emily Bazelon, says that when Kavanaugh was questioned by officers, he declined “to say if he threw the ice or not.” Ludington, who was present, said Kavanaugh started the fight by “throwing his beer in the man’s face.” Dudley, by the way, is the friend whom Kavanaugh recommended to the Judiciary Committee as a witness to Kavanaugh’s moderation in consuming alcohol.

8. Evidence indicates that Kavanaugh forgot what happened while he was drinking. Several eyewitnesses endorse this conclusion. Brookes said she “drank to excess many nights with Brett Kavanaugh.” She said that he “often drank to excess,” that she saw him “stumbling drunk in a ridiculous costume saying really dumb things,” and that “there had to be a number of nights where he does not remember.” Another classmate, Liz Swisher, said, “I saw him very drunk many times, and there is no way he remembers everything about every night.” Swisher concluded that “it’s not credible for him to say that he has had no memory lapses in the nights that he drank to excess.”

Ludington said that “in denying the possibility that he ever blacked out from drinking, and in downplaying the degree and frequency of his drinking, Brett has not told the truth.” Another classmate, Kit Winter, said, “I have thought a lot about Kavanaugh’s statement on Fox [News], that he never drank so much that he didn’t remember what he had done the next morning. And having witnessed the level of drunkenness of Brett and his crew … I find that very hard to believe.” An anonymous college friend, speaking to BuzzFeed News, said she had “frequently been drunk with” Kavanaugh and that “he could often be found slumped over, asleep, during and after parties.”

Judge’s and Kavanaugh’s writings support these accounts. In his memoir, Judge depicts a character named Bart O’Kavanaugh who “passed out on his way back from a party.” In his yearbook entry, Kavanaugh jokes about sporting events he watched at parties: “Who Won That Game Anyway? … Who Won Anyway?” And four years ago, Kavanaugh described himself and a former classmate “piecing things together“ to figure out that they’d “had more than a few beers” before an alcohol-soaked banquet in law school.

Then there’s the exchange with Coons in last week’s hearing. It was one of the least-noticed moments in Kavanaugh’s testimony, but it may have been the most telling. The question was whether Kavanaugh had “ever gotten aggressive while drinking.” He could have said yes. He could have said that he had once thrown ice or beer at a guy or that he had once tried to break into a pickup truck. Instead he said no, and he fished for clues. “What are you talking about?” he asked Coons. “… Unless you’re talking about something … that I’m not aware of.”

What was going on in that exchange? There are three possibilities. One is that all the evidence of Kavanaugh’s aggressive behavior—the police report, Ludington’s eyewitness account, and the story told by classmates about the pickup truck—is bogus. The second possibility is that Kavanaugh remembered these incidents but chose to pretend they had never happened. The third possibility is that he didn’t acknowledge them because he didn’t remember them. He forgot what he had done, or he tried to hide it.

That makes it highly plausible that Kavanaugh has done the same with the drunken assault on Ford: If he isn’t falsely denying it, he has forgotten it. The evidence of Kavanaugh’s drinking, aggression, and denial doesn’t prove this conclusion, but it makes it far more plausible than it would be for a random innocent man. Too plausible to put Kavanaugh on the nation’s highest court.