Maricopa County prosecutor takes center stage in questioning of Ford

Longtime Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, right, has handled cases similar to the sexual assault allegation leveled by Christine Blasey Ford against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. (Photo courtesy CNN)

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, center, leaves the hearing where senators heard from him and one of the women who has accused him of sexual assault decades ago. (Photo by Daniel Perle/Cronkite News)

Audience members in a packed overflow hearing room watch Maricopa County prosecutor Rachel Mitchell on a remote monitor as she questions Christine Blasey Ford. (Photo by Daniel Perle/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Maricopa County prosecutor Rachel Mitchell took center stage at the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, gently probing a “terrified” Christine Blasey Ford about her charge that she was sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when they were both teens.

While Democrats took turns praising Ford for having the courage to come forward, Republican senators on the committee – all men – turned the questioning over to Mitchell for the first half of the daylong hearing.

Mitchell was largely sidelined, however, when a defiant and emotional Kavanaugh testified that the accusations had hurt his family and destroyed his reputation, points that came a rallying cry for GOP senators who vigorously defended him while Democrats just as vigorously grilled him.

One of the few committee members who did not ask questions of either witness was Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, who took his time during the hearing to say he expected little to come out of it.

“This is not a good process, but it’s all we’ve got,” Flake said late in the day. “In the end there is likely to be as much doubt as certainty going out of this room today.”

It was the fifth day of testimony in what had appeared to be a sure path to confirmation for Kavanaugh, until Ford’s allegations surfaced almost two weeks ago.

She said that she and Kavanaugh were teenagers in the early 1980s when he assaulted her at a party in 1982. Ford said a drunken Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, put his hand over her mouth and tried to remove her clothes before she was able to get away.

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Since Ford’s name became public less than a week ago, two other women have come forward to say they, too, were assaulted by Kavanaugh when they were in high school or college with him.

After days of wrangling, and calls by Democrats for a delay so that the FBI could fully investigate the claims, the committee called Thursday’s hearing with just Kavanaugh and Ford testifying.

A shaky Ford began the hearing by saying how much she did not want it to happen in the first place – but that she felt obligated to come forward.

“I am here not because I want to be. I am terrified,” Ford said in her opening statement.

Mitchell’s questioning began with an apology to Ford, saying that no one should feel terrified to come forward with claims of sexual assault.

From then on, Mitchell’s tone was calm, but her questions were meticulous and specific, asking how many people were at the 1982 party, for example, and what she could hear others saying after she locked herself in a bathroom to escape Kavanaugh.

At one point, Mitchell asked about press reports that Ford is afraid of flying, then asked why Ford ended up flying to Washington to testify.

“I was hoping that they would come to me but then I realized that that was an unrealistic request,” Ford said.

The general line of questioning drew a rebuke from Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who criticized Mitchell for asking about details surrounding the reported assault, but not the assault itself. Mitchell should realize that sexual assault victims often have lapses of memory due to trauma, Hirono said.

“This is not a criminal proceeding, this is a confirmation,” Hirono said.

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That was a theme repeated by Democrats throughout the day.

When Ford’s attorneys complained about a question over whether Ford or someone on her behalf had reached out to lawmakers before Ford contacted her congresswoman, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California, Mitchell asked, “Is that an objection?” Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California both seized on that to say the hearing was not a trial in a court of law.

The final line of questioning concerned the structure of the hearing. with Mitchell asking if Ford thought asking a series of questions in five-minute increments before a Senate committee is the right way to question a sexual assault victim.

Mitchell and Ford agreed the best way for a victim to share her story was one-on-one, where the victim can “just talk.” Mitchell then asked why Ford did not agree to such an interview in her home state of California by committee staff.

After Ford’s subdued testimony, Kavanaugh opened his testimony with a lengthy and fiery personal statement – punctuated by a few moments of tears – in which he said the charges have destroyed his family and his good name.

While he said “sexual assault is horrific,” he repeated his categorical denials that he has ever assaulted anyone and accused Democrats of a smear campaign in retribution for his work on President Bill Clinton’s impeachment and for President Donald Trump’s 2016 election.

After Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, demanded to know why Kavanaugh would not want to clear his name by supporting an FBI investigation of the accusations against him, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina erupted at Democrats on the committee.

“This is not a job interview, this is hell,” said Graham, who called the process “a sham.”

Mitchell did not utter a word for the rest of the proceedings, as Republicans took their turn stating their support for Kavanaugh and accusing Democrats of sabotaging the process while Democrats harped on Kavanaugh’s refusal to welcome an FBI investigation to clear his name.

-Video by Daniel Perle

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