Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, along with the American public, will for the first time on Thursday hear directly from Christine Blasey Ford, the university professor who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were both teenagers in high school.
She and Kavanaugh will both testify under oath, in public. The stakes couldn't be higher; a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court may rest on whose account senators believe. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans say they plan to follow the hearings closely, with many yet to make up their minds, according to an NPR-PBS Newshour-Marist poll.
The Judiciary Committee released excerpts of Kavanaugh and Ford's prepared testimony Thursday. Ford will say, "I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school."
In his prepared remarks, Kavanaugh admits, "I was not perfect in those days, just as I am not perfect today. I drank beer with my friends, usually on weekends. Sometimes I had too many. In retrospect, I said and did things in high school that make me cringe now. But that's not why we are here today. What I've been accused of is far more serious than juvenile misbehavior. I never did anything remotely resembling what Dr. Ford describes."
President Trump has said Ford's testimony should be heard, and that he will be watching. He has also called the allegations against Kavanaugh "a disgrace to the country," and "a big, fat con job." Trump says it will be reflected in the upcoming midterm elections.
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How did we get here
When Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement shortly after the end of the Supreme Court's 2017-2018 term, President Trump quickly nominated the 53-year-old Kavanaugh, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the post, praising him as "one of the finest and sharpest legal minds in our time."
During his confirmation hearings earlier this month, the conservative Kavanaugh, who served as a top legal aide during the George W. Bush administration and worked with independent counsel Ken Starr on the investigation into President Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, promised to be an independent jurist and "a team player on the Team of Nine." Democrats tried without success to draw out Kavanaugh's beliefs on a range of issues from executive power to abortion rights.
Kavanaugh, meanwhile, proudly pointed to the numbers of women court clerks he had hired, many of whom have gone on to clerk at the Supreme Court, as well as the girls' basketball team he coached and the influence of strong women in his life, starting with his mother, a retired judge.
It seemed as though outnumbered Democrats could do little but watch as Kavanaugh's nomination sailed ahead, possibly reshaping the high court for a generation.
But that all changed after the confirmation hearings, when reports surfaced that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., received a letter in July from a California woman who charged that she had been sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh in the early 1980s. Christine Blasey Ford had asked for anonymity in the letter that she sent to Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, through her congresswoman, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. Feinstein passed the accusations along to the FBI.
As the press got wind of the letter, Ford revealed her identity by speaking to The Washington Post in a story published on Sept. 16.
Democrats demanded the FBI investigate the alleged incident, but the White House has refused to ask for the bureau's help. The Judiciary Committee, however, did agree to allow Ford to testify before them, and originally set the hearing date for Monday. But after Ford's lawyers said their client couldn't arrange her appearance on such short notice, they agreed to convene the hearing on Thursday.
What are the accusations?
There are currently three women on the record with allegations, including Ford, and two others without names attached that the Judiciary Committee has questioned Kavanaugh about. Ford is the only accuser who will testify, though Kavanaugh is likely to be asked about all of the accusations.
Christine Blasey Ford says that she was assaulted by Kavanaugh when they were in high school. She says that at a party, an inebriated Kavanaugh forced her onto a bed, groped her and tried to remove her clothes. She says that Kavanaugh's friend Mark Judge jumped on top of them and inadvertently gave her the opportunity to flee. No eyewitnesses have corroborated the account, something Kavanaugh and his supporters point out frequently, though Ford offered documentation in the form of notes from a therapy session that she and her husband had in 2012.
Deborah Ramirez was a classmate of Kavanaugh at Yale University and says that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her while drunk at a party during the 1983-84 school year. Ramirez admits she was under the influence and was reluctant to come forward with her story for several days while she assessed her memory. "I can still see his face, and his hips coming forward, like when you pull up your pants," Ramirez told The New Yorker. No eyewitnesses have corroborated her story, though some classmates told the magazine they recall hearing about the incident at the time.
Julie Swetnick gave a sworn declaration, released by her attorney Michael Avenatti on Twitter Wednesday morning. Swetnick says she witnessed drunken behavior from Kavanaugh at parties in the early 1980s, including pressing himself against girls without consent among other things. Swetnick says she was raped at a party that Kavanaugh attended.
On Tuesday, Republican staff of the committee asked Kavanaugh about two other secondhand, anonymous tips they had received. He denied those allegations as well. The committee released a transcript of the interview Wednesday night.
Kavanaugh has categorically denied all the allegations, including while under oath while being questioned by Senate Judiciary Committee staff.
What will happen at the hearing?
The Senate Judiciary Committee will convene at 10 a.m. ET on Thursday and they will first hear from Ford, who has requested Kavanaugh not be present for her testimony, followed by Kavanaugh.
At the start of the hearing, chairman Grassley and ranking member Feinstein will each give an opening statement. Ford and Kavanaugh will each be sworn in under oath and give their opening statements.
Next, the 21 senators on the committee — 11 Republicans, 10 Democrats — will get five minutes each to question both witnesses.
For Senate Republicans, questioning her was a problematic issue. There are no GOP women on the Judiciary Committee, and having 11 white men questioning an alleged victim of a sex crime presented an optics issue to say the least. So they went outside the Senate, and hired what Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called a "female assistant."
She is Rachel Mitchell, who according to a statement issued by committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is a "widely recognized expert on the investigation and prosecution of sex crimes," who has worked in the Maricopa County Attorney's Office in Phoenix.
The Republican senators can defer to Mitchell in turn for their individual five minute questioning opportunities, but they can also decide to ask their own questions if they want.
Democratic senators plan to conduct their own questioning of Ford and Kavanaugh. It's possible that some Democrats will yield their time to one of the former prosecutors on the panel, including Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
With breaks allowed upon requests from the witnesses, the hearing could go on for several hours.
What happens after the hearing?
Much will depend on the hearing itself.
Grassley has already posted notice of a committee vote on the Kavanaugh nomination Friday morning, before the nomination would go to the full Senate for final approval or disapproval.
Democrats are demanding they hear from other women who have stepped forward, including Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, and have a fuller investigation involving the FBI before a vote. Grassley has cautioned the Friday vote is not certain to happen. "If we're ready to vote, we will vote. If we aren't ready, we won't," he said on Twitter.
Ultimately Kavanaugh's fate appears to sit in the hands of a trio of undecided GOP senators: Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
If they are convinced by Kavanaugh's testimony, Republicans will likely have the votes to confirm. If they are not, it's likely Kavanaugh's nomination would go down — either because it would be withdrawn or in a vote on the Senate floor.