Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, nervous about the optics of an all-male panel interrogating an alleged victim of sexual assault, gambled and hired a “female assistant” to question Christine Blasey Ford Thursday on their behalf. All 11 members of the Republican majority — including Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who called for the hearing — yielded their time to Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell.
In the first several hours of testimony, Mitchell cross-examined Ford about her memories of the night of the alleged assault at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when both were teenagers. Mitchell also pressed Ford about her fear of flying, about the polygraph test she submitted to before coming forward, about how she selected her lawyers and about how she planned to pay her legal fees.
The prosecutor also asked about the mutual friend of Ford and Kavanaugh’s — the same individual who GOP operative Ed Whelan accused, without credible evidence, of sexually assaulting Ford. (Ford said at that time and again on Thursday she was “100 percent certain” that Kavanaugh was her attacker.)
Mitchell’s questions, which she chose with the help of the Republican committee members and their aides, seemed designed to raise questions about whether Ford’s decision to come forward was politically motivated. But the emerging consensus, vocalized by a number of high-profile Republicans — including, at least reportedly, the president — was that the “female assistant” gambit had failed.
New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman reported aides and confidants to the president were doubting the wisdom of enlisting Mitchell. “Almost every person close to Trump who had told me having a sex crimes prosecutor question Ford was good strategy is saying they think it was a mistake after the first portion of the hearing,” Haberman tweeted.
Fox News anchor Bret Baier said listening to Christine Blasey Ford was “a totally different thing” than reading the allegations. His colleague Chris Wallace added, “This was extremely emotional, extremely raw, and extremely credible… This is a disaster for the Republicans.” Conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat struck a similar note on Twitter, writing, “Kavanaugh could be innocent, memories of trauma can be wrong, but absent more dramatic exculpatory evidence than a calendar this is too credible to elevate him.”
Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman, speaking with sources inside the White House, described the president as “furious.”
“Person close to Trump says Trump is raging at how bad this has been for Republicans so far. Trump told people Ford ‘seems credible,’ per source,” Sherman tweeted.
If accurate, that could be significant. At a press conference on Wednesday, Trump left the door open to withdrawing Kavanaugh’s nomination if he found Ford’s testimony convincing.
During the second break on Thursday, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), seemed ready to admit that Ford was persuasive, albeit clumsily. Hatch described Ford as an “attractive witness,” adding of the alleged victim of sexual assault, “she’s pleasing.”
Hatch’s colleague, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), remained unconvinced. Graham said the fact that Ford hired a lawyer and took a polygraph test “makes me more suspicious” of her account, as does the facts that she can’t remember how she got to the party or how she left. “Why don’t you believe him?” Graham asked a gaggle of reporters.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Graham’s colleague on the Judiciary Committee, said Republicans had no one to blame but themselves for the hearing backfiring. “If they had allowed the FBI investigation and not outsourced their constitutional duties, they wouldn’t have been surprised by things like the reason she took the polygraph where she did was because she was at her grandma’s funeral,” Klobuchar told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Mitchell, herself, seemed to concede that the hearing as designed was a less than “ideal,” concluding her questions by asking Ford if she was aware that most of studies of trauma victims have found that a private, uninterrupted “cognitive interview” — like one that might be conducted by the FBI — was believed to be the best practice.
“Would you believe me if I told you this setting, in five-minute increments, is not the best way to do that?” Mitchell asked.
Ford said she would.
It’s worth noting that Mitchell’s professional expertise — the reason, ostensibly, Republicans on the committee enlisted her help in the first place — is in interrogating individuals accused of sex crimes, not their victims. It’s also worth noting that Mitchell’s services were quickly dispensed with soon after the committee’s questioning of the person accused of such crimes began.