U.S. Senate Republicans were reportedly moving to hire outside counsel to handle the questioning of Christine Blasey Ford at what was still an uncertain public hearing where she would claim Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her decades ago in high school.
Ford’s attorney, Debra Katz of Washington’s Katz Marshall & Banks, on Thursday told Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, that Ford was willing to testify next week but only under certain conditions and with assurances of her safety, according to reports. Katz did not repeat a demand, made earlier this week, that the committee first ask the FBI to investigate her allegations before a hearing took place.
Kavanaugh, meanwhile, who has denied the assault allegations, has been spending his days this week prepping for the hearing with the assistance of White House officials and former clerks, according to a Senate aide.
“Since the moment I first heard this allegation, I have categorically and unequivocally denied it. I remain committed to defending my integrity,” Kavanaugh said in a letter to Grassley on Thursday.
Ford has been working with communications expert and political strategist Ricki Seidman, according to news reports. Seidman is a former aide to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy who played a key role in getting Anita Hill to testify in 1991 against Clarence Thomas at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Seidman also helped with the Supreme Court confirmation of Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Behind all the wrangling over the planned hearing next week pitting Ford against Kavanaugh, teams of congressional lawyers are working long hours, negotiating the contours of the showdown.
Almost immediately after Kavanaugh’s nomination was announced in July, Grassley brought on a team of special counsel lawyers and law clerks to shepherd the nomination, with attorneys combing through documents and working on other legal matters, according to the Senate aide.
A top adviser to Grassley—Mike Davis, the committee’s chief counsel for nominations and a former clerk to Justice Neil Gorsuch—came under criticism over a tweet that appeared to state Republicans were “unfazed and determined” to confirm Kavanaugh. Davis later deleted the tweet, saying he had been referring to “Democrats’ partisan attacks and their refusal to take part in the committee’s thorough and fair investigation.”
This summer, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the judiciary committee’s ranking Democrat, hired Marc Hearron from Morrison & Foerster to be her chief counsel on nominations. Feinstein last year appointed Jennifer Duck to lead the Democratic judiciary committee staff. Duck had been Feinstein’s chief of staff since 2013, when she left Pfizer Inc. Duck was vice president of government relations and corporate leadership at the drugmaker.
Democratic and Republican senators on Thursday continued to spar in the press and on social media over whether the FBI should first investigate Ford’s allegations before any public testimony and whether to call additional witnesses.
At a press conference Thursday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, said Ford shouldn’t testify without the FBI first investigating her claims that Kavanaugh groped her when they were both teenagers. Gillibrand noted that the FBI had investigated law Hill’s sexual harassment claims before she testified during at Thomas’ confirmation hearing.
Jeffrey Peck, formerly majority counsel and staff director of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the 1991 Thomas-Hill hearings, said there was no debate during those proceedings over whether the FBI would investigate. “Everyone agreed the FBI should investigate Prof. Hill’s allegation, which is obviously a sharp contrast from today,” Peck said Thursday in an interview.
The more difficult questions, he said, focused on which witnesses would testify, how many and in what order.
Peck recalled the Thomas-Hill hearings as a “chaotic ” time.
“ It’s difficult for members, difficult for staff, for the person making allegations and the accused, and things are generally more compressed than you want them to be,” said Peck, now a lobbyist at Washington’s Peck Madigan Jones.
Dennis Burke, of counsel at Ballard Spahr in Phoenix, was a majority counsel during the Thomas-Hill hearings. He described those hearings as “surreal to this day.” The committee, Burke said, was in “uncharted territory and no one had a full sense of how it was going to play out. There was no process or procedure with how to deal with a scenario like that.”
Senate committees are set up for hearing bills and offering amendments and compromising on legislation, Burke said. “This is not a process about compromise. It’s about, ‘Are we going to vote this person out or not?’”
Burke described the process as “extremely tense and bewildering.” He continued: “You have to get Democratic and Republican staff both in the room—who is in the room and what questions were to be asked? What do we do with what comes out of the interview? Does the person testify? Who is going to be on the person’s panel? The other side says, ‘If that person is on your panel, we want so and so on our panel.’”
Peck said the committee should have rules put in place—rules that neither side can change—for any future situation. “There ought to be agreement when something like this comes up that the FBI re-opens the investigation and there’s no set timeframe but a reasonable amount of time to investigate, and what role the staff has in the investigation,” he said.
“On the one hand, it’s chaotic and a tremendous amount of work,” Peck said. “On the other hand, it’s not something you throw up your hands and do nothing.”