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What To Watch For In Today’s Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearing

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony today from Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when both were in high school. The hearing starts at 10 a.m. Eastern; Ford is expected to testify first, then Kavanaugh.

The format will be something like this: Each of the 21 senators on the committee — or someone designated by the senator (more on that in a bit) — will have five minutes to question Ford and then another five minutes to question Kavanaugh. No other witnesses are scheduled to speak, but the fight over Kavanaugh is no longer only about what happens in the hearing — Ford is not the only person accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.

Earlier this week, Deborah Ramirez accused Kavanaugh of thrusting his penis in her face at a party both attended in college. Then, on Wednesday, Julie Swetnick released a three-page affidavit through her attorney, prominent Trump critic Michael Avenatti, that included a long list of explosive accusations against Kavanaugh. According to Swetnick, Kavanaugh attempted to take off girls’ clothes, pressed girls against him without their consent, made crude sexual comments about them, secretly put alcohol in their drinks and was at least present as a group of boys participated in what Swetnick described as gang rapes. All this at parties she and Kavanaugh allegedly attended while in high school. There are also late reports Wednesday of additional allegations.

So we’ll be watching the hearing today, of course, but we’ll also be keeping an eye on what is happening online, what other officials are saying and more. We’ll be looking at how all this affects Kavanaugh’s chances of confirmation, and how Kavanaugh’s confirmation fits into the broader cultural moment.

In short, there’s a lot going on. So to keep everything straight, here are some of the main things to watch for:

What does Ford say? Ford gave a detailed account in her interview with the Washington Post of what she said happened between her and Kavanaugh. And her opening statement has been made public. So it seems unlikely that we’ll learn many new details about the alleged incident. But the reality is that a televised hearing is much different than a newspaper interview. What Ford says matters, but how Ford describes what happened will be scrutinized by the media, the public and activists in each party — and that will affect how senators ultimately vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination. Remember this is a political process, not a legal proceeding, even though it has some legal trappings. But standards like “innocent until proven guilty” or “beyond a reasonable doubt” don’t apply here. Maybe it shouldn’t, but the theater of the hearing is likely to play a role in how the public and politicians respond to it.

What does Kavanaugh say? The judge has a calendar from 1982 that he is expected to submit as evidence. He will use it to suggest that he could not have sexually assaulted Ford when she says he did, because he’ll claim it shows that he and Ford were not at a party at the same time during this period.

But Kavanaugh will have to address more than just the timeline of Ford’s accusation, he’ll also have to discuss his alcohol consumption. Both Ramirez and Swetnick’s allegations depicted Kavanaugh as very drunk — and other people who knew Kavanaugh during his youth have also suggested he drank heavily and partied hard. He rejected this description of his behavior as a young man during an an interview this week with Fox News, but the discrepancy between his account and those of his accusers is likely to be interrogated in Thursday’s hearing.

Something else to keep an eye on: How much does Kavanaugh appeal to the GOP base in his testimony and cast these allegations as a politically motivated way for Democrats to keep him off the court, as President Trump has suggested ?

What does a GOP-hired attorney (who is also a woman) ask Ford? Republicans have hired Rachel Mitchell, an Arizona prosecutor in Maricopa County Attorney’s Office1 to ask questions at the hearing. She is a reportedly a registered Republican and leads a Special Victims division that prosecutes sexual assault cases, among other crimes. But Mitchell is not a nationally-known figure, as far as I can tell. It’s incredibly unusual for a Senate committee to bring in outside counsel to ask questions instead of the senators.

But given that the 11 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are all men, I think it’s fair to say that Mitchell’s experience with sexual assault cases isn’t the only reason Republicans chose her. Again, back to the theater of the hearing: It would have been bad politics for the all-male GOP committee members alone to question Ford. The questions and answers between Ford and Mitchell are maybe the biggest unknown of this hearing — neither of them have much experience in nationally televised hearings and the political stakes are huge.

Will the Republicans defer all of their question time to Mitchell? Here’s the thing: Each GOP senator can decide if he wants to yield his question time to Mitchell. That might make for the the best optics, but we are talking about senators, who often like to hear themselves talk. Plus, senators such as John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah are also attorneys. Are they really going to yield to outside counsel? I’m not sure. I think the odds are still fairly high that at least one Republican senator will say something to Ford that is problematic.

What do the Democrats do with their time with Ford? For the 10 Democrats on the committee the choice they face is: Use your time to help Ford explain her narrative in more detail, or use your time to complain about how Republicans have employed procedural moves to expedite Kavanaugh’s nomination process. Democratic senators on the committee could choose to defer their question time, too — not to an outside counsel, but to their colleagues with more legal experience, such as Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. I think Harris, in particular, could have a big role in this hearing — she was one of the more pointed questioners of Kavanaugh during his testimony earlier this month.

How do the Democrats take on Kavanaugh? The Republican senators (and/or Mitchell) will ask Kavanaugh questions. But the real story could be what the Democrats do when they face Kavanaugh for another round of questioning. Kavanaugh has adamantly denied the allegations made by Ford, as well as those by Ramirez and Swetnick. And I doubt he will concede much, even about his drinking habits, to the Democrats questioning him. So I’m not exactly sure what Democrats can do during their time with him. That said, I would watch Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono, who has been a strong voice in the chamber on issues of sexual misconduct, along with the three senators I mentioned earlier (Harris, Klobuchar, Whitehouse.)

Finally, a wild card: Does Trump force out Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during the hearings? If you believe that the president and his team have a deliberate strategy to get the media to stop covering stories that make the president look bad by creating diversions, this week would support that theory. Trump scheduled a meeting with Rosenstein for Thursday — although he said Wednesday during a press conference that he might postpone it. Rosenstein is under fire after a New York Times story said he discussed Trump’s removal from office via the 25th amendment and considered wearing a wire in meetings with the president. A Rosenstein resignation or firing would be a huge story, so the media also has to cover this meeting. But Trump meeting with Rosenstein on the same day as Ford and Kavanaugh’s hearing will also take away at least a bit of attention from the Senate proceedings — and that might be the president’s intention. There are some indications Trump is not likely to fire the deputy attorney general on Thursday, but he has not ruled out that possibility either, keeping speculation going.

And that gets to one other question that’ll hang in the air as the Kavanaugh hearing unfolds: What does Trump say?

Footnotes

  1. That’s the Phoenix area.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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