It all happened very quickly.
After waiting days to hear from Christine Blasey Ford, the woman alleging that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both teenagers, Ford’s lawyers sent Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) a letter Tuesday night making clear that she wouldn’t appear at Monday’s hearing unless and until the FBI investigated her claim first. “She will talk with the committee,” Ford’s lawyer Lisa Banks told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “She is not prepared to talk in public on Monday.”
Within an hour, Grassley had responded – making very clear that it was Monday or never for Ford. “Dr. Ford’s testimony would reflect her personal knowledge and memory of events,” said Grassley in a statement. “Nothing the FBI or any other investigator does would have any bearing on what Dr. Ford tells the committee, so there is no reason for any further delay.”
Grassley’s gambit was quickly backed by several senators who had been the most uneasy about the prospect of moving forward with a vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation without hearing from Ford first. “After learning of the allegation, Chairman @ChuckGrassley took immediate action to ensure both Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh have the opportunity to be heard, in public or private,” tweeted Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker (R). “Republicans extended a hand in good faith. If we don’t hear from both sides on Monday, let’s vote.” Added Republican Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake: “I implore Dr. Ford to accept the invitation for Monday, in a public or private setting.”
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And with that, the game of chicken was formally joined: On one side, Ford insisting that without an investigation, there can be no full hearing on the accusations. On the other, Senate Republicans and the White House, arguing that they are offering Ford a platform to tell her story but noting that the opportunity has an expiration date.
Lost amid the “will she or won’t she” questions is the fact that what Grassley – almost certainly in coordination with the White House – is doing represents an absolutely massive political gamble: Amid the cultural upheaval of the #MeToo moment and with an election looming in less than seven weeks’ time, Republicans are daring a woman alleging sexual assault against a nominee for the country’s highest court to either put up or shut up.
The belief among Republicans is that if Ford won’t come forward after they accommodated her desire to speak about her story (and gave her the opportunity to do so in a public or a private setting) then she will be judged to be a less-than-credible source – allowing them to proceed with confirming Kavanaugh to the court with little negative political fallout.
Motivating all of this, of course, is the coming court term – it begins October 4 – and the midterm elections on November 6. Conservatives want Kavanuagh on the court for the new session because if he doesn’t participate in the arguments, he can’t vote – meaning that the possibility of 4-4 ties, which means the lower court’s decision holds, goes way up. Politically speaking, a chance exists that Republicans lose control of the Senate in the 2018 election. (It’s not likely, but it is a possibility.) If that happened, Republicans would have to try to force Kavanaugh’s confirmation through in a lame-duck session held between the election and the swearing in of the new Congress. A Democratic-controlled Senate would almost certainly refuse to vote Kavanuagh through – particularly after the stalling tactics Republicans put in place when President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the court in 2016.
Those twin legal and political necessities are driving Republicans to what, from the outside, looks like a considerable political gamble. Here’s why it’s risky:
1) The leader of the Republican Party has major polling problems among women. President Donald Trump, who was elected in 2016 despite allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior from more than a dozen women surfaced during the campaign, has absolutely dismal numbers among female voters. In a new CNN-SSRS poll, just 29% of women approved of the job Trump was doing in office while 65% disapproved. More tellingly, 57% strongly disapproved of how Trump was doing the job. That speaks to a level of vitriol (and passion) that, traditionally, translates into major turnout in the coming election.
2) Democrats have nominated a record number of women in 2018 primaries, setting up a massive contrast, potentially, with a Republican Party that set a hard and fast deadline for a woman alleging sexual assault and then moved on when she failed to meet it. (Check out this graphic that shows just how many Democratic women have run – and won – this year.)
3) Anita Hill. The specter of the shabby treatment of Hill, a former colleague of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, during his 1991 confirmation hearings looms over all of this back-and-forth between Senate Republicans and Ford. Hill, who alleged that Thomas behaved inappropriately to her in the workplace, was put to harsh questioning by the male members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The chairman of the committee at the time – Joe Biden – has since said he owes Hill an apology for allowing her to be so personally and viciously attacked during the hearing.
Make no mistake: Grassley’s statement on Tuesday night – and the subsequent back-up it got from the likes of Flake and Corker – amount to a massive risk for Republicans. They are calling Ford’s bluff – just days after she called their bluff by insisting, through an attorney, that she was willing to testify publicly about her allegations against Kavanaugh.
Now, we wait. To see whether Ford reverses herself on the necessity of a FBI investigation before she will testify. Whether Republicans can hold this risky line they have staked out. And, if Ford doesn’t appear and Kavanaugh is confirmed, whether they will pay a price for that gambit at the ballot box.