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6 things to watch in Thursday's hearing with Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford

Live on national television, the California professor who alleges President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nom...

Posted: Sep 27, 2018 2:35 PM
Updated: Sep 27, 2018 2:35 PM

Live on national television, the California professor who alleges President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee sexually assaulted her as a teenager will tell her story -- and Brett Kavanaugh will face tough questions about whether it is true.

Thursday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing could be the decisive moment in the confirmation process of a man who could deliver conservatives a long-term majority on the nation's highest court.

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Christine Blasey Ford will testify first, followed by Kavanaugh. Each senator will get five minutes to ask questions -- and each can hand that duty off to a committee staffer or another senator, if they wish.

Here's what to watch in Thursday's hearing:

What Ford will say

President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans have cast Ford's allegation as part of a Democratic smear campaign intended to thwart Kavanaugh's confirmation.

Confronting those biases is part of the challenge facing Ford, who will seek to come off as credible and not motivated by politics in the face of majority Republicans pressing forward with Kavanaugh's confirmation.

"My motivation in coming forward was to provide the facts about how Mr. Kavanaugh's actions have damaged my life, so that you can take that into serious consideration as you make your decision about how to proceed," Ford says in her written testimony submitted Wednesday. "It is not my responsibility to determine whether Mr. Kavanaugh deserves to sit on the Supreme Court. My responsibility is to tell the truth."

What Kavanaugh says — and how he looks

There's not much doubt what Kavanaugh will say about Ford. According to his prepared testimony, Kavanaugh plans to tell senators that he "said and did things in high school that make me cringe now" -- but that he "never did anything remotely resembling what Dr. Ford describes." And in a September 17 interview with Judiciary Committee staffers, he said he didn't recall ever meeting her.

But it's not just Kavanaugh's words that matter -- it's the optics.

Polls show Kavanaugh is the most unpopular Supreme Court nominee in recent history. He could surround himself with female allies and family members in an effort to appear sympathetic and to attempt to shift the focus to his actions as a professional.

On hand for the hearing will be his lawyer, Beth Wilkinson. How often, and after which questions, Kavanaugh pauses and turns to Wilkinson before answering questions could also be telling.

The White House and some Senate Republicans have urged Kavanaugh to drop his calm, lawyerly demeanor, on display in the confirmation hearing and a Fox News interview this week, and flash some anger at the allegations he faces. Democratic questioners are certain to ask uncomfortable questions about Kavanaugh's youth that could create defensive or combative moments.

The prosecutor

Republicans tapped Rachel Mitchell, an Arizona sex crimes prosecutor, to ask questions on their behalf Thursday. And little is known about how she plans to approach the hearing.

Mitchell huddled with several Republican members of the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday evening, but refused to answer questions as she left the meeting.

Senators handing their responsibility off to someone else, as the GOP has in this case, is highly unusual. Will it spare Republicans any Anita Hill moments, or will it backfire?

The decision to tap Mitchell comes as Republican senators insist that their committee staffers can handle an investigation that Democrats and Kavanaugh's accusers have said the FBI should be conducting. Republicans have also refused to subpoena Mark Judge, who Ford says was with Kavanaugh when the alleged assault took place.

The swing vote

Sen. Jeff Flake is an undecided Republican on the Judiciary Committee who is retiring and has made an enemy of Trump. His reaction to Thursday's testimony could be the clearest immediate indicator of Kavanaugh's fate.

The Arizona senator implored colleagues Wednesday to keep an open mind during the hearing and suggested that he has not yet made a decision about who to believe.

"I do not know how I will assess the credibility of these witnesses -- these human beings -- on the grave matters that will be testified to, because I have not yet heard a word of their testimony," he said. "I will have to listen to the testimony before I make up my mind about the testimony."

Later in the day, he left open the possibility of delaying a Friday committee vote on Kavanaugh's confirmation, saying whether to subpoena Judge depends on "how important" Judge is to Ford's testimony.

How will Democrats question Kavanaugh?

In Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing, two Democratic senators with 2020 ambitions -- New Jersey's Cory Booker and California's Kamala Harris -- took center stage, asking the most aggressive questions and galvanizing both progressive opposition and conservative support.

This time, it could be the four Democratic committee members who were prosecutors or attorneys general who could ask Kavanaugh the toughest questions.

Often, Senate hearings are opportunities for senators to grandstand -- spending more time talking about their own views than asking questions.

Thursday will be different. Though Ford is the only accuser testifying, three women have made allegations against Kavanaugh. Democrats are likely to grill Kavanaugh on all of their allegations and the corroborations from some of their friends and classmates, as well as his drinking habits in high school and college.

Those four members -- Harris, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse were all former attorneys general, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a former county attorney -- could lean on their prosecutorial experience to press for answers.

How will Republicans behave?

The midterm elections are less than six weeks away, and Republican candidates across the country will be holding their breaths Thursday.

Their hope is to avoid any moments that would make the 11 white, male GOP members of the committee look callous toward survivors of sexual assault -- which would be disastrous for the party's hopes of holding onto control of the House and the Senate in November as polls show women increasingly turning against Republicans. It's why the GOP tapped Mitchell to ask questions for the members.

Republican senators who are not on the committee will be watching the hearing closely. And while they'll be weighing Ford's allegation and Kavanaugh's response, they will also be calculating the political fallout of voting for Kavanaugh even after one of his accusers is heard on national television. GOP committee members' handling of the hearing could be key in shaping the public view.

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