As an extraordinary Senate hearing closes in, Republicans are keeping mum on who will question Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and a woman who accuses him of sexual assault.
And they cranked up the pressure by scheduling a committee vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination for Friday, less than 24 hours after the pair will testify.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee — all 11 of whom are men — agreed to have an outside counsel ask questions on their behalf at Thursday’s high-stakes hearing. In emails to the accuser’s attorneys, committee staff said Chairman Charles E. Grassley has hired “an experienced sex crimes prosecutor” for the job.
But the identity of that counsel remained an enigma Tuesday. Even other members of the Judiciary panel — including GOP Sen. John Cornyn — told reporters they did not know who she is. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell revealed the counsel is a woman, he would provide no other details.
The decision to bring in an external lawyer was a strategic one, Republicans said, especially given the sensitive topic.
“It is not uncommon to have professional staff do questioning in a situation like this,” McConnell said. “We want this hearing to be handled very professionally, not a political sideshow like you saw put on by the Democrats when they were questioning Judge Kavanaugh.”
Citing safety reasons, committee staff also withheld the identity of the outside counsel from attorneys for Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who says Kavanaugh held her down on a bed and groped her while both were in high school.
Ford, now a professor living in California, agreed to testify Thursday under certain conditions and told Grassley she wanted it to be “a fair setting that won’t disrupt families and become a media TV show.”
“We know that if we don’t do that, unnecessary jabs and criticisms come,” said Republican committee member Orrin G. Hatch. “It’s just better to do it that way and get someone who’s professional and be able to handle it properly.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham said booking the outside counsel doesn’t mean Republican members are giving up their right to ask questions if they want.
“I think that makes sense — and since I haven’t been doing this for about 20 years — to have somebody that’s a trained professional makes sense to me,” the South Carolina Republican told reporters. “I think that’s what they did at Watergate. I’m sure if I have anything I’m dying to ask, I’ll ask.”
Democratic Judiciary member Sheldon Whitehouse responded to the idea that the Republicans wouldn’t ask their own questions with three words: “Seems pretty lame.”
Committee Democrats are planning to ask their own questions. “Senators ought to know how to ask their own questions,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy said.
And Sen. Chris Coons called it a gamble on the part of committee Republicans.
“My gut is they’re trying to avoid a panel of all white men asking tone-deaf questions of someone who’s bravely brought forward allegations of sexual assault,” the Delaware Democrat said. “If instead they replace that with an overly aggressive prosecutor who conducts questioning in that style, I think that will not reflect well on them.”
Judiciary panel staff wrote in an email to Ford’s attorney that for the most serious hearings in recent history, such as Watergate and Iran-Contra, the Senate brought in an experienced counsel to question the witnesses.
“The chairman’s goal is to depoliticize this process and search for the truth — instead of creating a forum for senators to grandstand or launch their presidential campaigns,” the email said.
But the committee declined to divulge the name. An attorney for Ford, Debra Katz, wrote committee staff late Monday to question if there were reasons “other than strategic advantage and unfair surprise” that the committee was not disclosing the name and résumé of the outside counsel.
Families of both Ford and Kavanaugh have reported that they have received death threats in the 10 days since she went public with her allegation.
Republican leaders want to schedule a floor vote for Monday or Tuesday on Kavanaugh’s confirmation “unless something derail[s] it along the way,” according to Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota.
Thune told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday that if all goes according to plan, Republicans could get the procedural gears turning over the weekend. That assumes Thursday’s hearing does not alter the current trajectory that Senate GOP leaders have set.
Jacob Fischler contributed to this report.
Double Drama: Kavanaugh, Rosenstein Await Trump’s Return from UN Conference