What We Didn’t Learn From the Kavanaugh Hearing
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- We didn’t learn much from the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing yesterday. The evidence about whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Professor Christine Blasey Ford when they were teenagers in the early 1980s remains what it was beforehand. The hearings only reinforced some things we already knew.
First: Ford’s accusation is the most serious of the ones against the judge. The Democrats mostly stayed away from The New Yorker magazine’s rumor-mongering concerning Deborah Ramirez — who professed no certainty about the events of the 1980s until very recently — and from Julie Swetnick’s lurid yet vague claims of a high-school gang-rape ring. Because the later accusations are so thinly sourced, they can only very slightly raise the plausibility of the first one. The Democrats were right to acknowledge the point, if only tacitly.
Second: There remains no compelling evidence that Ford is making up her story to hurt Kavanaugh or Republicans. She gave every indication of being someone who believes what she is saying.
Third: While her allegation is serious, it remains uncorroborated. Memories, even of traumatic events, can be mistaken. Under penalty of perjury, all of the people she said were at the party where the assault allegedly took place deny any memory of that party. By Ford’s own account, she told nobody about the alleged assault for decades. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And the fact that nobody has made a similar allegation against Kavanaugh until the last two weeks doesn’t prove she’s wrong, nor does the fact that Kavanaugh has made firm denials that ought in principle to be falsifiable. Nobody has stepped forward to say that he ever saw the two of them at a party together, or that he remembers him getting so drunk that the next day he had forgotten what happened the night before. None of these things are proof that he’s telling the truth — but they do tell in his favor.
Fourth: We are unlikely ever to get evidence that provides a definitive answer about the accusation. There is no reason to think that FBI interviews of the named parties will yield different statements from them. A Senate subpoena of Mark Judge would probably be met by his invoking the Fifth Amendment, which no reasonable person would interpret as evidence of Kavanaugh’s guilt. Ford has already explained that there were few people at the party and that the only ones there who could be expected to know what happened were her alleged assailants and her. The impulse to demand further investigation is understandable, but any such investigation would run up against the limits of time and memory.
Fifth: People are dug in on both sides. This was most apparent in the reactions to Kavanaugh’s opening statement. Those who regard him as guilty saw it as evidence that he would be an angry drunk, or lacks a judicial temperament, or feels entitled to get his way. Those who regard him as innocent saw it as evidence that he knew he had been unjustly accused. The divergent reactions illustrate the folly of expecting gut reactions to in-person testimony to resolve murky disputes of fact.
Sixth: Senators are more interested in questions of Senate procedure than most people are. The Republican-hired counsel’s focus on who had leaked Ford’s story, and whether she had been adequately informed of her options, initially struck me as peculiar. Whether or not the Democrats mishandled the allegation, after all, has no bearing on the more important question of whether it’s true. But that line of questioning may have had an effect on a few senators, who can now conclude that the allegation is being used for political purposes without having to say that Ford is a conscious part of that campaign.
One last thing: Kavanaugh’s confirmation is on a knife’s edge. Which, again, is something we knew before the hearing, too.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.
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