Midterm Time Capsule, 46 Days to Go: Backtracking, Plowing Ahead

Members of Congress tee off at the Columbia Country Club (CQ Roll Call via AP)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last night around 1 a.m., I mentioned that a fevered and insanely conspiratorial tweetstorm then online was almost certain to disappear. It was filed by Ed Whelan, a friend of Brett Kavanaugh’s and a prominent figure in conservative judicial circles; it laid out elaborate (but crazy) forensic evidence pointing to one of Kavanaugh’s Georgetown Prep classmates as the likely “real” aggressor in the long-ago attempted-rape case; and it was nuts.

This morning, about 14 hours after the posts originally went up, Whelan removed the several-dozen tweets he had painstakingly put together and replaced them with this:

Of the many questions the episode raises, let me quickly mention just two.

1) Who else was in on this? Anyone following the Kavanaugh-confirmation controversy over the past week would have noticed previews, rumbles,  speculation, and excitement among conservative voices about upcoming news that would remove the sexual-assault cloud from Kavanaugh.

For instance, on Tuesday of this week Kathleen Parker ran a column in the Washington Post with the headline “Is there a Kavanaugh doppelganger?”, which was the hypothesis that Ed Whelan laid out.  A number of Republican senators and TV pundits said that Christine Blasey Ford, the accuser, might be “mixed up” about the event itself or which young men were involved. And, as Brian Beutler noted, about an hour before Whelan began his dispatches, Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review posted:

Nearly all of the conservative establishment, to its credit, reacted in horror once they saw what Whelan was actually posting. (An exception was Fox and Friends, which on Friday morning, about an hour before Whelan retracted his tweets, was enthusiastically promoting his theory to Fox viewers.) But beforehand many of its members seemed hopeful about a big, new scoop that was about to appear.  (Update: in Vox, Zack Beauchamp asks similar questions about whether anyone other than Whelan was involved in hatching the “doppelganger” theory.)

A Democratic figure who has been involved in confirmation battles has suggested, via email, the kinds of questions that senators (and journalists) should be asking of Whelan and others, including some for Kavanaugh when he next testifies:

  • Did anyone help Whelan compile the extremely detailed personal information he used, in his attempt to identify and blame a specific Georgetown Prep student? Did he really do this all himself?
  • How did Whelan get the idea that there could have been a similar-looking classmate? How did the whole narrative of “mistaken identity” originate in the first place?
  • Who Googled the floor plan of the house from a real-estate website, so that it could be used as evidence of the classmate’s alleged guilt? Or determined the home addresses of other students from 35 years ago, in order to place them on a map (as part of an argument about who lived close enough, or too far away, to be involved)?
  • How did Whelan get the picture, from Kavanaugh's Georgetown Prep yearbook, that he used to ID his other suspect?
  • What did Kavanaugh know, and when did he know it?

Here is a sample of the “forensic” postings that have now disappeared:

2) Who else might be tweeting on this subject?  In particular, Donald Trump, who weighed in on Friday morning:

It is painful to need to point this out, in response to the chief law-enforcement officer of the United States, but: the FBI could not have been involved in this case 35 years ago. The crime, if there was one, would have been under Maryland state law. The call would have gone to the Montgomery County Police. (The FBI, a federal agency—that’s what the F stands for!— is being invoked now because a nominee is being vetted for a lifetime-tenure federal job, and being considered by members of the U.S. Senate.)

And this is, of course, apart from the countless barriers of shame, privacy, despair, pain, lack of evidence, skepticism of police reaction, and fear of family reaction, that leave so many assaults unreported.

A prominent conservative figure backtracks. The most prominent GOP figure plows ahead. 46 days to go.