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With Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony over, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee sidelined the woman they brought in to question Ford about her allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers.
Republican senators, largely silent while Ford was in the witness chair, aggressively defended Kavanaugh after the nominee himself strongly denied the allegations of Ford and other women.
If they were concerned about the optics of having 11 men question an alleged victim of sexual assault, those concerns were largely gone with Kavanaugh in front of them.
The woman who posed questions to Ford, Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, remained in the room but sat mute while the afternoon wore on.
It was another turn in what was clearly an awkward day for Mitchell. She typically tries to put people accused of sex crimes in prison. Instead, she was in the unusual and difficult position of trying to chip away at Ford’s credibility.
And she was doing it on behalf of the 11 Republican men on the Senate Judiciary Committee who preferred not to question Ford themselves, and in the glare of television lights and with a strict five-minute time limit that seemed to get in her way repeatedly.
As her time for questioning Ford was coming to an end, Mitchell herself seemed to give voice to her exasperation with her task when she rhetorically asked Ford about the best way to question victims of sex crimes.
“Would you believe me that no study says that this setting in five-minute increments is the way to do that?” Mitchell asked.
One Democratic senator, a former prosecutor who is not on the committee, said Mitchell had a “tough job.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said: “I can’t imagine doing either a direct examination or a cross-examination in five-minute increments. And she’s not used to cross-examining people who are telling the truth.”
In her very first exchange with Ford, Mitchell began by expressing sympathy for Ford, who said she was “terrified” to testify, saying: “I just wanted to let you know, I’m very sorry. That’s not right.” But then she turned to her task, asking a series of small questions about the accuracy of statements Ford made.
In a trial, the answers to those questions can help lawyers paint a picture of a witness as unreliable. But in the Senate hearing room, Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley cut in to say her time was up and it was now the Democrats’ turn to ask questions. The questioning moved on to Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
The scene repeated itself throughout the day. An experienced prosecutor, Mitchell does not operate under time constraints when she questions witnesses in a courtroom.
The tenor of the questions suggested Mitchell was trying, if gently, to question the reliability of Ford’s recollections and portray Ford as a pawn of Democrats who are out to stop Kavanaugh at any cost.
In one example, Mitchell pointed out that Ford did not mention Kavanaugh’s name as her attacker between 1982, when the event allegedly took place, and 2012, when she was in couples therapy with her husband. Mitchell also asked Ford why she only contacted Democratic lawmakers about her allegation.
Ford replied that she contacted her representative in Congress — Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat — and Eshoo recommended contacting Feinstein, a California senator and the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Later, Mitchell pressed Ford repeatedly to reveal who paid for a polygraph exam that Ford took in the late summer. One of her lawyers, Debra Katz, interjected: “Let me put an end to the mystery. Her lawyers paid for the polygraph.”
The questions about the polygraph also illustrated that Mitchell had little time and no prior access to Ford, which might have allowed her to avoid asking questions where the answers hardly undermined Ford as a witness.
When Mitchell asked why the polygraph was done near a Washington-area airport, Ford replied that it was to accommodate her as she headed to her grandmother’s funeral.