The already-contentious confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh took an explosive new turn Sunday after a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University told The Washington Post that the judge, President Donald Trump’s choice to fill a vacancy in the UA Supreme Court, had assaulted her sexually on one occasion over 35 years ago, when both Kavanaugh and she were teenagers.
Dr Christine Blasey Ford had, in late July, written in confidence to Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, with her allegations. Feinstein contacted the FBI, which sent the letter to the White House for inclusion in Kavanaugh’s background file, after redacting Dr Ford’s name. But the existence of the letter became known — The New York Times reported “possible sexual misconduct” on the part of the judge, Buzzfeed showed up at Dr Ford’s home and workplace, and The New Yorker published its contents without naming the accuser — and the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee released a letter from 65 women who claimed to know Kavanaugh since his years at Georgetown Preparatory School (1979-83), vouching for his character, integrity, and the “decency and respect” with which he treated women.
Dr Ford, 51, told The Post that in 1982, Kavanaugh and his classmate Mark Judge — now a filmmaker and author who has a past history of alcoholism — entered her bedroom during a gathering of teenagers at a house in Montgomery County, Maryland. Both were drunk, and Kavanaugh “pinned her to a bed on her back and groped her over her clothes, grinding his body against hers and clumsily attempting to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she wore over it”. Dr Ford told The Post that she was able to escape after Judge jumped on them, “sending all three tumbling”.
Dr Ford first spoke about the incident in 2012, to a therapist, whose notes say she reported having been attacked by four youths, and do not mention Kavanaugh by name. Dr Ford says there were four boys at the party but only Kavanaugh and Judge entered her room, and that the therapist made an error taking notes. In August, Dr Ford took a polygraph (lie detector) test, and cleared it.
Kavanaugh has issued a short statement “categorically and unequivocally” denying the allegation. Judge has told the media that the accusation was “just absolutely nuts”, and that he “never saw Brett act that way”.
The situation now
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to meet Monday, and Dr Ford has been asked to appear. She has so far refused, saying she would testify only if the FBI first investigated her allegation. Democrats, who have been opposing Kavanaugh’s confirmation from before Dr Ford’s allegation surfaced, have demanded the FBI step in; Republicans have been staunchly opposed. They have insisted that Dr Ford testify, in private if she so wishes. Trump has said that if Dr Ford “shows up and makes a credible showing, that will be very interesting and we’ll have to make a decision”; however, Kavanaugh is “such an outstanding man” that it is “very hard” for him to “imagine that anything happened”.
Eleven Republicans sit on the Senate Committee, opposite 10 Democrats. There are no women on the panel. The Republicans remain haunted by the Committee’s 1991 treatment of attorney and academic Anita Hill, who had accused Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, but whose testimony the was rejected as unreliable during Thomas’s confirmation hearings. Public sympathy was with Hill; Thomas is now a sitting Justice.
The controversy must be seen in the context of the #MeToo phenomenon, in which women everywhere have come out to speak on sexual harassment. Also, mid-term elections in the US are scheduled on November 6, and will decide who controls the Senate and the House. Democrats hope to win at least two new seats to regain control of the Senate. It is important for Trump that Kavanaugh’s nomination goes through without delay.
Meanwhile, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Wednesday showed a growing number of Americans were opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination — 36% did not want him, up 6 percentage points from a similar poll last month, while 31% favoured his appointment.