In Senate Republicans’ haste to avoid repeating the disastrous optics of the 1991 Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, they decided to abdicate their responsibility to question Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, ceding the task to Rachel Mitchell, a prosecutor from Arizona.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) claimed that his unprecedented decision to “hire” Mitchell was “to de-politicize the process and get to the truth, instead of grandstanding and giving senators an opportunity to launch their presidential campaigns.”
I spent years helping choreograph congressional oversight committee hearings, and not once would we have entertained the tactic of bringing in a hired gun to question our witnesses in place of our own members.
The reason why is because it would not have been an effective way to get to the truth of anything.
If Thursday’s hearing was really about truth, Grassley would not have already scheduled a vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation for Friday morning. If Thursday’s hearing was really about the truth, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick would have been allowed to tell their stories as well. If Thursday’s hearing was really about the truth, key witnesses like Mark Judge would have been called to testify.
Republicans’ calculation in using Mitchell had nothing to do with the truth, as they falsely professed. It was that a woman questioning a woman would serve them better politically than a panel of Republican men cross-examining a sexual assault victim on national television.
Republicans saw this hearing all through the lens of winning and losing.
Traditionally, the rules and structure of congressional hearings benefit the members. As we saw during Kavanaugh’s own session before the Senate Judiciary Committee, members tend to use their time to filibuster and give political speeches. It’s a tactic that allows them to establish context and reinforce certain themes and narratives throughout the hearing.
But because Senate Republicans changed the way they would question Blasey, they ended up illustrating just how much of a charade this whole hearing was.
As Blasey’s remarkable and compelling appearance unfolded, it became evident that the deliberate absence of other witnesses and accusers was just as much a burden for Mitchell as it was for Blasey. To Mitchell’s credit ― and much to the Republicans’ chagrin ― she approached her questioning the way any prosecutor would, by pointedly asking questions with minimal editorializing.
Yet given the format of the hearing, she had little to work with. She spent much of her time questioning the authenticity of Blasey’s fear of flying or who paid for the administration of a polygraph exam, but in no way did her contributions to the proceeding bring the committee closer to the truth.
As Kavanaugh’s turn to testify arrived and it became clear that Mitchell wasn’t the ringer they had hoped for, Republicans benched her. Senators like Ted Cruz (R-Texas), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who had been sitting silently during Blasey’s testimony, suddenly found their voices and offered lengthy soliloquies defending Kavanaugh. So much for Grassley’s line about “getting to the truth” to prevent “grandstanding for political purposes.”
Other Senate Republicans like Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who excoriated his Democratic colleagues as “despicable,” had already said Blasey’s testimony wouldn’t change his vote. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared on Tuesday that “we’re going to be moving forward. I’m confident we’re going to win, confident that he’ll be confirmed in the very near future.”
And that’s the thing – Republicans saw this hearing all through the lens of winning and losing. To them, allegations of sexual misconduct and gang rape are obstacles they must overcome to win their game. It doesn’t matter if the allegations are true or not, as long as they win.
Senate Republicans unilaterally made the decision to limit the hearing to just Blasey and Kavanaugh. Republicans brought in Mitchell for the optics, set up a sham hearing that excluded essential witnesses she could have questioned, and the minute they felt they were on the losing end of things, had her stand aside.
The bottom line is Senate Judiciary Republicans couldn’t find the courage to ask Blasey any questions ― but had no problem finding their voices to run interference and defend Kavanaugh. That inequity should tell you all you need to know about what unfolded on Thursday.
Kurt Bardella is the former spokesperson and senior adviser for the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee and U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Follow him on Twitter: @kurtbardella