Christine Blasey Ford Weighs the Risks and Rewards of Testifying

There’s almost no way the woman who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault can adequately prepare for a high-pressure appearance Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley swears in Judge Neil Gorsuch before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2017. (Alex Wong / Reuters)

Will she or won’t she?

The question has captivated much of official Washington as lawmakers await Christine Blasey Ford’s decision on testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley offered Ford the chance to speak publicly about her allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party some 35 years ago.

Late Friday night, after hours of tense negotiations with Ford’s lawyers, Grassley extended a deadline until 2:30 p.m. Saturday; by then, Kavanaugh’s accuser must decide whether she will testify on Monday and under what terms. Ford had earlier signaled her willingness to testify later next week, so long as senators, not outside counsel, ask the questions, and Kavanaugh speaks first; Grassley has said he wants Ford to appear at a hearing Wednesday.

It’s not unusual, of course, for a private citizen to testify in a congressional hearing. But Ford’s hypothetical appearance has prompted discussion about the risks and rewards of a layperson—that is, someone unaccustomed to the public eye—willingly enduring the no-holds-barred atmosphere of a congressional hearing. The rules (or lack thereof) dictating a hearing, coupled with the spectacle-like nature of the event, make for one of the most high-pressure climates in Washington. All of which is only compounded by the fact that Ford would be testifying about something deeply personal and intimate.

“A lot of the  things she says seem very believable. But every single story has gaps in it—sometimes you win or lose based on how you handle those gaps,” Jennifer Loven, the managing director of Glover Park Group, told me.

Loven has prepped scores of clients for congressional hearings—from low-profile, private citizens to major CEOs—but said, ultimately, the risks will be weighed by the client alone. “It's such a personal decision. Every woman who has a story to tell, assuming she’s credible and telling the truth, weighs just an incredible number of factors … Really only she can decide whether she has an obligation to herself, to society, before going before members of Congress.”

The decision to testify, however, is only a small part of the battle. It’s understandable that Ford’s lawyers would blanch at the thought of a Monday hearing. According to sources on both sides of the aisle with knowledge of the process, 48 hours is hardly enough time to ready a client for a congressional hearing. From hiring the right counsel to simply understanding how to dress, preparing for a hearing is an endurance test in itself, requiring many days, if not weeks, to accomplish.

Order one, according to these sources, is to hire the right team—but avoid the so-called process story. The less attention paid to who is helping prep your client, and how, the better. But because this is Washington, those details will likely leak. As such, those I interviewed said they advise clients not to hire folks who are known as partisan brawlers. “For [a hearing] so politically charged at its core, that could put you in a category of contrivance instead of authentic,” Loven said.

Politico reported on Thursday that, contra such advice, Ford has hired Ricki Seidman, who advised the Obama administration during Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation, to help prep her. In this case, according to Juleanna Glover, a top political and corporate adviser at Ridgely Walsh, Ford should also consider hiring a well-known name from the other side. “If she wanted to be savvy and pick off a Republican, she'd go to [Reginald] Brown at WilmerHale,” Glover said. (Brown helped prep Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for his recent testimony before Senate and House Judiciary members about the site’s sharing of user data during the 2016 presidential election.) She noted that Kavanaugh himself has latched on to this strategy in hiring Beth Wilkinson, a high-powered trial lawyer who represented Hillary Clinton’s top State Department staffers during the FBI probe of her private email server.

Another key element of preparation is familiarizing the client with the physical space of the committee room. “It sounds sort of dumb and obvious,” Loven said. But there are multiple factors that could overwhelm someone who’s never sat in on, or even watched, such a high-profile hearing. For one, there’s the flurry of photographers who crouch as close as six inches away from where the witness sits. And then there’s the power dynamic inherent in the room’s layout: Senators quite literally speak down to the witness from their dais, monitoring the witness’s answers closely with a timer. “Everything about it is intimidating,” Loven said. Accordingly, she and her colleagues will prep clients by setting up a faux hearing room, including a long dais where people act as certain members, a lower witness table, and a clock.

Next comes the game tape, so to speak. “They’ll show her clips of people who’ve done poorly, people who’ve done well,” one Washington congressional-investigations lawyer, who requested anonymity because of ongoing cases, told me. “Anita Hill will be mandatory viewing.”

Reviewing the tape is not just to judge past witnesses, though. It’s also to understand which senator will play what role—in other words, the lawyer said, “who will be the attack dogs, and who will be the supporters.”

“You have to know what political points each of them might be looking to score,” Loven echoed. “Sometimes it’s not as much a search for truth as it is a presentation [these senators are] making to members of the public. You have to acknowledge the larger political circus that’s going on.”

Perhaps the most crucial element of preparation, the sources said, is making sure their client knows the audience. “This is a situation where you’re on two really tricky stages at once,” Loven said, “and you need to survive both of them.”

First, a client must prepare for  the “inside game”: the senators themselves. Glover would advise “hard, smart, savvy inquisitors across the table” for at least three blocks of two to three hours of prep. “You’d subject them to what is, in essence, a murder board: asking them the most uncomfortable, disquieting, humiliating questions. You want to have that person become fully centered and understanding of all aspects of their emotions on these very personal matters.”

Loven predicted that senators will spend a lot of time grilling Ford on the timing of her allegations, in order to try and tease out a political motive. “They’ll want to know, if her story is so solid, why now? Why all of the sudden at the 11th hour? Because there’s a little bit about that that doesn’t make sense from a very distant perspective,” she said.

“She’ll also probably get questions about her life in between high school and [this past] summer, whether she’s working with outside groups, who else is supporting her,” the Washington lawyer said. “They’ll want to know about the decisions to delete her social-media accounts. Ultimately, your entire life is fair game in these kinds of proceedings.”

Yet the second stage—the public stage—may matter most of all. Ford’s task is to convince not just the Judiciary Committee of the veracity of her story, but also the nation. “She and her lawyers will have to figure out what the most important message is that they want to transmit over this multihour exhibition,” Glover said. “Because this is not focus-grouped at all: They have to decide what the best words are to explain her story.” And not just words, the Washington lawyer added; everything from posture to appearance—how little makeup, what color blouse—all factor into the public’s final impression of Ford.

Should Ford decide to testify, this is the preparation battle that lies ahead. Loven’s final word to the wise? “The first rule of these things,” she said, “is that there are no rules.”