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Kavanaugh, Ford testify: What to watch for

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By Alexander Bolton, The Hill

Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court is likely to be determined by Thursday's blockbuster hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The panel will hear from Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who in written testimony on Wednesday gave a vivid account of an incident from a party in the 1980s where she alleges the Supreme Court nominee attacked her when the two were teenagers.

"I believed he was going to rape me," Ford said in the testimony, which also gave her account of why she came forward publicly.

Kavanaugh has denied the allegations and in his own prepared testimony calls the charges from Ford and other accusers "last-minute smears, pure and simple."

"There has been a frenzy to come up with something - anything, no matter how far-fetched or odious - that will block a vote on my nomination," he wrote.

On the eve of the most explosive hearing since Anita Hill's 1991 testimony against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Washington buzzed over new accusations against Kavanaugh brought forward by a third woman, Julie Swetnick, represented by Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels.

Swetnick and the second woman lodging a complaint against Kavanaugh, Deborah Ramirez, will not testify on Thursday, meaning the confirmation is likely to come down to how senators feel about what they hear from Kavanaugh and Ford.

Here are some things to watch for.

A test of credibility

Lawmakers and aides in both parties say the hearing will be pivotal in establishing the credibility of Kavanaugh and Ford.

"Juries smell truthfulness," said a Democratic senator. "Juries look for who is the most comfortable and nine times out of 10, that's the one telling the truth."

Democrats say that Kavanaugh delivered a poor performance when he and his wife sat down for an interview with Fox News Channel host Martha MacCallum, describing his claims that he was a virgin through college as unbelievable and faulting his reliance on talking points.

Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), a centrist Democrat who is undecided on how to vote, says he will "read body language and listen to what they're saying and how they're saying it" to assess the credibility of the witnesses.

Details of the alleged assault

Republicans have zeroed in on the gaps in Ford's memory about when and where the alleged assault took place.

Kavanaugh himself has questioned whether she may be confusing him with someone else, telling MacCallum on Monday that she "perhaps" was assaulted at "some point in her life" but asserting that he never committed such an act.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Judiciary panel, said he is looking for "more context about the allegation and more specific" information.

Republicans have emphasized that four of the people who allegedly attended the party where Ford says Kavanaugh assaulted her did not have any recollection of the event.

In an email to the Judiciary Committee, a lawyer for Leland Keyser, whom Ford said was at the party, said his client "does not know Mr. Kavanaugh and she has no recollection of ever being at a party or gathering where he was present, with or without, Dr. Ford."

Dems to question Kavanaugh about sex and drinking

Several Democrats say their colleagues on the Judiciary Committee will ask "very detailed questions" of Kavanaugh about his drinking habits and his sexual relations in high school and college. Their plan is to make the nominee appear evasive.

Democrats will seize on the multiple references to partying and heavy drinking in Kavanaugh's high school yearbook profile as well as the memoir by his friend, Mark Judge, "Wasted: Tales of a GenX Drunk," which appears to reference Kavanaugh as a character named Bart O'Kavanaugh.

"One of the more obvious things to go after is the tension between the image of Judge Kavanaugh's choir boy or frat boy. Bluntly, you can find both in his own writings and speeches," said Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Another Senate Democrat said that "nobody believes" Kavanaugh was a virgin throughout high school and many years thereafter.

"He's drinking and bragging in his high school yearbook about all the kegs," the lawmaker said. "He wasn't in the choir or the chess club."

While Democrats say it will be important to preserve an atmosphere of decorum, they will ask him directly about Ramirez's graphic allegation that Kavanaugh thrust his penis at her face during his freshman year at a Yale dorm-room party.

They will also ask about the sworn affidavit from Swetnick alleging that she saw Kavanaugh at parties where women were touched inappropriately and given drugs and alcohol to make them more vulnerable to sexual assault.

Role of outside counsel

Republicans have hired Rachel Mitchell, an attorney from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office in Arizona, to ask their questions of Kavanaugh and Ford.

The decision is designed to avoid having the GOP's all-white male Judiciary members be seen asking hostile questions to a woman claiming to be the victim of an assault.

Since each senator will have only five minutes to ask questions, GOP senators are not expected to play much of a role, although they may chime in with a question here and there.

"My plan for right now is to defer to our new staff member," said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), a member of the panel. "I reserve the right, if I have any time left, to ask questions, but I'm not planning on it."

Republicans say Mitchell will come up with her own questions and that they won't feed her questions to ask on their behalf.

Mitchell is also the head of the county's special victim's unit, which Democrats believe could play to Ford's favor if she shows her the empathy they believe an assault victim deserves.

"How tomorrow turns out if it goes ahead largely turns on what sort of tone and approach she takes," Coons said of Mitchell. "Either this is someone who deeply understands, respects and fights for victims and is able to conduct questioning of Dr. Ford that is respectful."

"Or this is someone who knows to be aggressive and focused and take a prosecutorial tone, and I don't think that will turn out well for the majority," he added.

A more dignified atmosphere

Kavanaugh's initial hearings were raucous and full of disruptions.

The panel includes two potential Democratic presidential candidates, and one of them, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), made a big splash at the initial hearing with his so-called Spartacus moment.

A Democratic senator said colleagues are urging Booker and other members of the committee to keep Thursday's hearing as sober and dignified as possible. They warn that a circus-like atmosphere will only make Ford feel uncomfortable and distract from her story.

"It's going to be important for Republicans and Democrats alike to take an even approach to both of them," said a senior Senate Democratic aide. "The reality is this is not a good look for the Congress."

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