Allegations Against Kavanaugh Cause Political Turmoil, Echoes of Anita Hill : The NPR Politics Podcast The woman who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault revealed her identity Sunday in an interview with The Washington Post.Christine Blasey Ford, a 51-year-old California professor, accused Kavanaugh of groping her and trying to take her clothes off when they were both attending suburban Maryland high schools in the early 1980s. This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, Congressional correspondent Scott Detrow, and legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Email the show at Find and support your local public radio station at

Allegations Against Kavanaugh Cause Political Turmoil, Echoes of Anita Hill

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KIERA WAGLEY: Hi. I'm Kiera Wagley (ph) with my AP government class at the National Constitution Center celebrating Constitution Day. This podcast was recorded at...


4:39 p.m. on Monday, the 17.

WAGLEY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Thanks. Enjoy the show.



KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is being accused of sexual assault from some 36 years ago. Those accusations could delay a vote on his nomination.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You have to go through this. If it takes a little delay, it'll take a little delay.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Congress.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: I'm Nina Totenberg, the legal affairs correspondent for NPR.

KEITH: Those allegations come from Christine Blasey Ford. She told her story to The Washington Post over the weekend. And what had been an anonymous allegation that had been sent in a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein, who's the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, suddenly, it was no longer anonymous. There was a name attached to it, and there were also more details. Nina, can you walk us through exactly what Ford is saying happened 36 years ago?

TOTENBERG: Basically, the allegation is that when Brett Kavanaugh was 17 and Christine Blasey Ford was 15 and they were both high schoolers in Bethesda, Md., that they attended a party where there was drinking and no parents, a small party. And that when she went upstairs to go to the bathroom, two of the boys - one of them, Brett Kavanaugh - pushed her into a bedroom, locked the door. Kavanaugh threw her on the bed, tried to undress her. That when she tried to scream, he covered her mouth. Then the other one jumped on the bed, too. They all tumbled out. That gave her a chance to get away. She went into the bathroom and locked the door and ultimately got away. That's the essence of the allegation.

KEITH: And Brett Kavanaugh is categorically denying it.

TOTENBERG: Totally says it never happened.

KEITH: He says, quote, "this is a completely false allegation. I have never done anything like what the accuser describes to her or to anyone. Because this never happened, I had no idea who was making this accusation until she identified herself yesterday. I am willing to talk to the Senate Judiciary Committee in any way the committee deems appropriate to refute this false allegation from 36 years ago and defend my integrity." When this was anonymous, it seemed like people didn't really know what to do with it.


KEITH: And then it just hit like a ton of bricks.

DETROW: Republicans haven't had a chance to really huddle and figure this out. That's actually going on right now. There are some meetings happening behind closed doors. Mitch McConnell just spoke on the Senate floor, and he really criticized Democrats, particularly Senator Dianne Feinstein, for sitting on this information for several weeks and not sharing it with the rest of the committee. Feinstein said she did that because she was trying to protect Ford, who did not want to come public at that point.

They say they're going to move forward. They say any idea of additional hearings - Cornyn said that would basically be a show trial. But here's the thing. As we've talked about so many times on this podcast, on one topic or another, Republicans only have a 51-49 advantage in the Senate right now. Any two Republicans who are uncomfortable with the speed of this or who don't want to vote for Kavanaugh at this point could derail this nomination because it looks like Kavanaugh is not going to get any Democratic votes at this point now that these allegations are out.

So it's really important, the viewpoint of people like Senator Susan Collins - Maine Republican who's a moderate, who was one of the people who stopped the health care overhaul along with John McCain. She has said in a statement that she wants Kavanaugh and Ford to come forward and testify.


SUSAN COLLINS: There are an awful lot of questions, inconsistencies, gaps. And that's why, to be fair to both, we need to know what happened.

KEITH: And even President Trump today at the White House was sort of echoing this idea that, you know, he wants to see this play out.


TRUMP: He is somebody very special. At the same time, we want to go through a process. We want to make sure everything is perfect, everything is just right.

DETROW: Yeah. And that was a little surprising because Republicans have all along wanted to get this confirmation done as quickly as possible. And then there's the logistics of wanting to have a full court at the beginning of the next term. But also, there's an election coming up. If Kavanaugh had to withdraw and they had to start this process over again, it would take a long time. It would be very tough to confirm a Supreme Court nominee before the election.

And there is a very small chance, but still a real chance that Democrats could retake control of the Senate in November. And then you would have Democrats in the majority of the Senate looking at a Supreme Court opening. And you could see a real likelihood of the Democratic base saying, there's no way in hell we're going to confirm a Supreme Court nominee based on the way that the Merrick Garland nomination played out. So that's, like, the worst-case scenario that Republicans are thinking about.

KEITH: Well, and also, you have Republicans who want to be able to go out there - President Trump wants to be able to go out there and say, hey, Republican base. Look what we just did for you.

DETROW: Exactly.

KEITH: We got you a second justice. And now that is very fuzzy.

DETROW: Yeah. And I actually have a question for Nina. Because you're hearing Collins and others say we need to have hearings. We need to hear from Ford. We need to hear from Kavanaugh. Nina, is there anybody who thinks that the Anita Hill hearings in 1991 were handled well? I mean, how can you...


DETROW: ...Have a hearing that doesn't turn into a total circus like that?

TOTENBERG: You know, this is not something that doesn't happen. This happens all the time with lesser nominees, where there is late-breaking news about the nominee - could be something sexual, could be drugs, could be almost anything. And very often, this is done behind closed doors, where the nominee is interviewed. And based on what is accumulated in terms of evidence, either that nominee goes forward and is confirmed and we never know about it or we find out about it years later, or the nominee withdraws.

KEITH: We're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, echoes of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.

And we're back. And Nina, there are some similarities to the moment that we're in right now.


KEITH: Sort of on the eve of votes, a story coming out. A woman coming forward on the record, a woman who had been reluctant to come forward and go on the record. And in fact, you are the reason that Anita Hill came forward, is that right? Or you're the one that got her to come forward.

TOTENBERG: I was the one that got her to come forward, but she was extremely reluctant. And in fact, she put an obstacle in my path that I think she thought that I couldn't cross, which was by the time I reached her, she'd been interviewed, I think, by the FBI. And she had submitted an affidavit to the Judiciary Committee. And she said, if I could get the affidavit, she would talk to me. And I think she thought I couldn't get the affidavit. And I'm not telling you it was easy, but I got the affidavit. And then she did. She actually talked to me.

KEITH: And the affidavit said...

TOTENBERG: The affidavit actually is remarkably consistent with everything she testified to, about all the sort of sexually explicit and bizarre commentary that she alleged Thomas engaged in over a period of years and why she didn't quit her job and et cetera, et cetera.

DETROW: Nina, can you - given that you were in this position of talking to Anita Hill and trying to get her to go on the record, can you give some guidance into the type of mindset? Because we've seen some criticism over the last few days of, well, if Ford didn't want to be public, why contact her congresswoman to begin with, you know? Can you talk about how Anita Hill struggled wanting to pass along information but not wanting to be in the public eye?

TOTENBERG: I think that when people have information that they think reflects badly on the character of a nominee to a very high-level position - like president of the United States even or Supreme Court justice or a high-level cabinet position - I think some people have moral pangs. And they think that it should be known that this person is not the person he or she appears to be. At the same time, they're not idiots. Even 27 years ago, before we had social media, Anita Hill did not want to become the public focus of a circus.

KEITH: And she did.

TOTENBERG: And she did.

KEITH: All right. Let's go back to 1991 and that hearing where Anita Hill testified. Joe Biden, former vice president at the time, he was the chairman of the committee. And he asked her some uncomfortable questions.


JOE BIDEN: Can you tell the committee what was the most embarrassing of all the incidences that you have alleged?

ANITA HILL: I think the one that was the most embarrassing was his discussion of pornography involving these women with large breasts and engaged in a variety of sex with different people or animals. That was the thing that embarrassed me the most and made me feel the most humiliated.

BIDEN: If you can, in his words - not yours, in his words - can you tell us what on that occasion he said to you? You have described the essence of the conversation. In order for us to determine - well, what - can you tell us in his words what he said?

HILL: I really cannot quote him verbatim. I can remember something like, you really ought to see these films that I've seen or this material that I've seen. This woman has this kind of breasts or a breast that measure this size. And they got her in there with all kinds of things. She's doing all kinds of different sex acts. And you know, that kind of - those were the kinds of words, where he expressed his enjoyment of it and seemed to try to encourage me to enjoy that kind of material as well.

BIDEN: Did indicate why he thought you should see this material?


TOTENBERG: The other part of this that is very hard to remember is that sexual harassment was really not talked about then. It was every working woman's secret. It was embarrassing. You didn't want to talk about it. There were very few other women in the workplace for you to talk to about it. There was no such thing as an HR officer who dealt with this that you could talk to. It was like throwing a grenade into the middle of American womanhood. There's a moment in the hearings where Anita Hill actually talked about this.


HILL: There is nothing in this statement or nothing in my background, nothing in my statement, there is no motivation that would show that I would make up something like this. And I guess one really does have to understand something about the nature of sexual harassment. It is very difficult for people to come forward with these things, these kinds of things. And it wasn't as though I rushed forward with this information. I cannot - I can only tell you what happened and to the best of my recollection what occurred.

KEITH: Since then, a lot has changed, and a lot hasn't changed.

DETROW: Well, you know, I think one of the big themes of the last couple of years with #MeToo is everyone's societal shock at how much things haven't changed and haven't progressed. And one of the things I've been thinking as this plays out is, well, are we going to get a real-time test of how much the Senate has or hasn't advanced in the last couple decades if there's another hearing where it's a woman making accusations and a man refuting them and senators questioning? I mean, I think I'm very curious to see how that plays out.

And the other thing I wanted to say is, you know, as - you hate to say it - I'm already covering the 2020 presidential primary, I've thought a lot about the Anita Hill hearings and how Joe Biden handled them and how, as popular as Joe Biden is with Democrats right now, the way that Hillary Clinton didn't really have an answer for a lot of the policies of the '90s that weren't sufficiently liberal for current Democratic voters. I wonder how much criticism Joe Biden would get in a competitive Democratic primary about the way he handled that hearing.

KEITH: I want to get to Clarence Thomas, too and how he responded. And are there parallels in the Thomas response to the Kavanaugh response?


CLARENCE THOMAS: I think that this today is a travesty. It's a national disgrace. And from my standpoint as a Black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas. And it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you.

KEITH: And of course, he is on the Supreme Court.

TOTENBERG: He is on the Supreme Court. He was confirmed by two votes, and he - there were 11 Democrats who voted for him, and some of them lost their seats in the Year of the Woman the next year.

KEITH: And you can draw a direct line from the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings and that Judiciary Committee of all men to what happened the following year in 1992, which was - became known as the Year of the Woman. There were all of these women who, you know, laced up their sneakers and decided to run for the Senate and for Congress - you had Patty Murray, who's still in the Senate; you had Barbara Boxer; and Dianne Feinstein, who is now the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, the person who received the letter from Christine Blasey Ford.

DETROW: Well, and you know what? It also underscores the dramatic divide between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party right now when it comes to diversity and gender diversity. Of the 11 Republican members of the committee, there are no women, and there are four on the Democratic side of the dais. So there's a split right there. And there are several Republican candidates running this year, but by and large, this surge of women candidates is happening on the Democratic side of the aisle. So assuming many of them win, that disparity is only going to get wider in the next Congress.

KEITH: All right. We are going to be watching this story all week long. We will be back in the studio as soon as there's any news that you need to know about it. Nina has a great piece up on right now all about the similarities and the differences between 1991 and today. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I covered Congress.

TOTENBERG: And I'm Nina Totenberg. I cover the law.

KEITH: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


KEITH: Hey, it's Tam here with an update. After we left the studio, we got word that the Senate Judiciary Committee is going to hold a hearing. Chuck Grassley announced that the hearing is now scheduled for next Monday. That does mean a delay in the vote on Brett Kavanaugh's nomination in committee. And it means that we're all going to hear from both Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford under oath. And we will be back in your podcast feeds when that happens and probably a few times before then, too.

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