New reporting by the New York Times bolsters the sexual misconduct allegations against him. It could have an impact on the 2020 elections.
On October 6, 2018, the Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.
The vote happened just weeks after women came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct: Christine Blasey Ford, who said Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when the two were in high school, and Deborah Ramirez, who said Kavanaugh thrust his naked penis in her face when the two were undergraduates at Yale.
At the time, most public attention focused on Ford’s allegation, especially after she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last September, saying that she was “100 percent” certain it was Kavanaugh who assaulted her (Ramirez did not testify). Now, new reporting by the New York Times bolsters Ramirez’s account — and reporters have found another Yale classmate who says he saw similar behavior by Kavanaugh at a different party.
The Times generated controversy on its own with its framing of the story, including a quickly deleted tweet that seemed to make light of Ramirez’s allegation. But regardless of how they were initially unveiled, the new details have big implications for the Supreme Court and the 2020 elections.
Even before the new allegation came to light, Americans had doubts about whether Kavanaugh would be an impartial justice. And this term, which opens in October, the Court could face high-profile cases involving sex discrimination, abortion rights, and more. The new details likely mean Kavanaugh and the Court as a whole will face even more scrutiny as they make decisions that affect Americans’ lives. And voters may have the Court on their minds more than usual when they cast their ballots next year.
Two New York Times reporters uncovered new details about the Kavanaugh allegations
Ramirez was the second woman to make a public allegation of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh, coming forward last September, several days after Ford told her story to the Washington Post. At the time, Ramirez told Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer of the New Yorker that at a party during the 1983-84 school year, Kavanaugh thrust his penis in her face. “I was embarrassed and ashamed and humiliated,” she said.
Ramirez’s allegation got significantly less public attention than Ford’s account. Only Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and she became the focus of attacks from the right (including President Trump, who mocked her at a rally), as well as a symbol of resistance for many survivors of sexual misconduct and supporters of the #MeToo movement. (A third woman, Julie Swetnick, said she saw Kavanaugh at parties where women were raped but did not report seeing Kavanaugh actually assault someone.)
“I am here today not because I want to be,” Ford said in her opening testimony before the committee. “I am terrified.”
However, she said, “my motivation in coming forward was to provide the facts about how Mr. Kavanaugh’s actions have damaged my life, so that you can take that into serious consideration as you make your decision about how to proceed.”
Asked how certain she was that Kavanaugh had assaulted her, she replied, “100 percent.”
Ford’s testimony moved the nation, with even Trump initially calling her “very credible.” At protests around the country, supporters held signs reading, “I believe Dr. Ford.” The allegations against Kavanaugh — and Ford’s especially — became a flashpoint in the ongoing national reckoning around sexual misconduct and gender inequality, with 56 percent of voters saying in a poll last December that the hearings made them think about sexism in society.
Kavanaugh denied the allegations against him and ultimately was confirmed despite them. But on Saturday, Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly brought the allegations back to the forefront of public consciousness with new details about Ramirez’s account. Their story was published in the New York Times Sunday Review, part of the Times Opinion section. It was adapted from their book, The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation, to be published on Tuesday.
Last year, Kavanaugh argued that if what Ramirez described had really happened, it would have been “the talk of campus.” In fact, Pogrebin and Kelly write, “our reporting suggests that it was.”
Specifically, the reporters spoke with at least seven people who had heard about the allegation long before Ramirez went public with it, including two people who heard about it just days after the party took place.
Meanwhile, another Yale alum, Max Stier, says he witnessed Kavanaugh with his pants down at a different party, with friends pushing his penis into the hand of a different female classmate, Pogrebin and Kelly report. The female classmate did not speak to the Times and friends say she does not recall the incident, the reporters clarified after the story was first published.
Still, the new details bolster Ramirez’s allegation and suggest a possible pattern of behavior for Kavanaugh.
The new reporting has led to questions around the FBI investigation, calls for Kavanaugh’s impeachment, and criticism of the Times
The new details made public by Pogrebin and Kelly have led to questions about how Ramirez’s allegations were investigated last year. In the wake of Ford’s testimony, the FBI performed an investigation into both women’s allegations. The investigation was highly limited in scope; as Vox’s German Lopez noted last year, the terms of the inquiry were set by the White House and investigators declined to interview several people Senate Democrats wanted to hear from.
Eventually, Republicans announced that the investigation had produced no corroborating evidence supporting Ford’s and Ramirez’s allegations, and the FBI inquiry may ultimately have served less to get at the truth than to provide cover for swing Republicans, including Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, to vote to confirm Kavanaugh.
But Pogrebin and Kelly’s reporting shows how limited the investigation really was. The reporters note that although Ramirez gave the FBI a list of at least 25 people who could potentially corroborate her account, the bureau interviewed none of them.
Two agents interviewed her but told her, “We have to wait to get authorization to do anything else,” her lawyer Bill Pittard told the Times. “It was almost a little apologetic,” he said.
Meanwhile, the FBI did not investigate Stier’s account, though he reached out to both the bureau and senators about it.
The fact that two reporters were apparently able to turn up more information about Ramirez’s allegation than the FBI has led to calls for a new investigation into the allegations. It’s also led to calls for Kavanaugh’s impeachment by several Democratic presidential candidates, including Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.
Impeaching Kavanaugh would require the support of two thirds of the Senate, as Vox’s Ian Millhiser notes — an unlikely prospect given the current Republican majority. There may be another way to remove Kavanaugh by court proceeding, based on a provision in the Constitution that federal judges and justices “shall hold their offices during good behaviour.” But whatever happens, Republicans in Congress are likely to back Kavanaugh and resist his removal.
Meanwhile, the New York Times has generated some controversy of its own with the framing of the Kavanaugh story. On Saturday, the official Twitter account of the Times Opinion section promoted the piece with a tweet reading, “Having a penis thrust in your face at a drunken dorm party may seem like harmless fun. But when Brett Kavanaugh did it to her, Deborah Ramirez says, it confirmed that she didn’t belong at Yale in the first place.” The tweet was widely criticized, with many pointing out that being the target of sexual misconduct did not, in fact, seem like harmless fun.
The Times has issued an apology, calling the tweet “clearly inappropriate and offensive.” But critics have also raised questions about other aspects of the paper’s handling of the piece, with some asking why a new allegation against a sitting Supreme Court Justice was published in the paper’s opinion section and not as a news story. The Times has said the story ran in Sunday Review because that section commonly runs book excerpts by Times reporters.
Also, a tweet that went out from the @NYTOpinion account yesterday was clearly inappropriate and offensive. We apologize for it and are reviewing the decision-making with those involved.
— NYTimes Communications (@NYTimesPR) September 15, 2019
The Times has also received criticism from President Trump and commentators on the right after it added an editors’ note to the story clarifying that according to friends, the female classmate mentioned by Stier did not recall the encounter he described. This information was not in the version of the story first published by the Times.
Trump used the editor’s note on Monday to claim that the Times was “walk[ing] back” their story, and that “this is all about the LameStream Media working with their partner, the Dems.”
However, as New York magazine’s Sarah Jones notes, the information about the female classmate is mentioned clearly in Pogrebin and Kelly’s book and the Times is not “walking back” its story but rather adding a detail that’s already present in the source material.
New details about Kavanaugh have implications for the Court and 2020
Controversy about the manner in which they were reported aside, the new details about the allegations against Kavanaugh could have big ramifications. Even before they came to light, Americans were suspicious about Kavanaugh: 57 percent thought he lied under oath and only a third believed he would be impartial on issues of sexual misconduct or issues Democrats support, according to a December 2018 poll by PerryUndem.
This term, the Court faces a variety of cases that could divide the country along party lines, as well as putting Kavanaugh and his history in the spotlight. For example, the Court will hear three cases centering on the question of whether federal civil rights law protects people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The Court may also take a case regarding a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital — opponents of the law say it would turn Louisiana into an “abortion desert,” leaving only one clinic open in the state, as well as opening the door for other states to block access to the procedure through increasingly onerous clinic restrictions.
These cases would have gotten attention regardless of the latest news, but the new details about the Kavanaugh allegations are likely to increase scrutiny into Kavanaugh’s role in making decisions around sex and gender discrimination and reproductive rights.
Before his confirmation, Kavanaugh was widely seen as a potential deciding vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established Americans’ right to an abortion. But last term, the Court declined to take up some cases involving reproductive rights, and some speculated that the justices were unwilling to enter a battle over abortion rights so soon after Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation process. The justices may have thought that confirmation process would be solidly in the past by the time this year’s term opened, but the new reporting brings it right back to the fore.
It’s unclear what that will mean for the Court, or its willingness to take up controversial cases that could remind Americans of women’s allegations against Kavanaugh. One thing is clear, though: Kavanaugh was unpopular with voters even before the allegations, with just 37 percent of Americans supporting his confirmation before Ford came forward. And Americans know that, regardless of what happens with calls for Kavanaugh’s impeachment, the next president will likely get to make at least one Supreme Court appointment.
Thanks to the Times’ reporting and the ongoing fallout from it, there’s a good chance that fact will be fresh in voters’ minds when they go to the polls in 2020.