Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination was secured by a conservative legal movement that takes a very particular form. It is strongly aligned with pro-life groups. Many of its leaders are Catholic. And, contrary to common stereotypes on the left, a significant number of its architects are women.
As the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to hear testimony on Thursday from Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, one of three women who have accused him of sexual misconduct, the movement that put Kavanaugh in place is facing its own series of tests: how it treats alleged victims of abuse, how reflexively it aligns with Donald Trump’s administration, and whether it’s more committed to securing the truth or securing a win for the Republican Party. Within the movement, key leaders say Ford’s allegations and others that have followed are either a smear or a mistake. They believe Kavanaugh’s fervent denials and remain committed to moving his nomination forward. Outside of Washington, conservative women and pro-lifers are closely watching the leaders who have come to represent them, wondering whether their priority is politics or justice.
In mid-September, Ford detailed her claims against Kavanaugh in an article in The Washington Post: When he was 17 and she was 15, Kavanaugh allegedly trapped her in a bedroom at an alcohol-drenched party in the D.C. suburbs, groped her and tried to remove her bathing suit, and covered her mouth when she tried to scream. Initially, conservative leaders reacted cautiously to the claims, which Ford had also submitted to Democratic legislators in a letter. Kellyanne Conway, who comes out of a D.C. advocacy world that’s closely aligned with the conservative legal movement, told reporters that Ford “should not be insulted. She should not be ignored. She should testify under oath, and she should do it on Capitol Hill.”
Two weeks later, that strategy of moderation has all but disappeared, even after a third woman came forward on Wednesday. Over the weekend, The New Yorker reported an allegation from Kavanaugh’s college years, from a woman named Deborah Ramirez, who attended Yale University with the judge. If anything, the story—based on hazy, drunken memories, by Ramirez’s own account—gave new energy to Kavanaugh’s defenders. The third allegation didn’t seem to change their minds, either; according to that claim, Kavanaugh was a heavy drinker who treated women roughly at parties in high school, and he may have known about, or possibly participated in, serial gang rapes.
Instead, conservative advocacy groups in Washington are calling the accusations a coordinated smear campaign. And female advocates are leading the way.
Mary Rice Hasson, a fellow in the Catholic-studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative research organization in Washington, told me in an email that Wednesday’s accusation didn’t change her views, especially because the alleged victim is being represented by Michael Avenatti, the bombastic lawyer who has sold himself as Trump’s biggest enemy. “Avenatti has zero credibility,” she wrote in an email.
Carrie Severino—the head of the organization that most speaks for the conservative legal movement, the Judicial Crisis Network—has called the Ford and Ramirez claims “a disgusting, politically motivated character assassination.” After the third allegation emerged on Wednesday, she told NBC News that it’s necessary to “look into” the allegations, but “so far, we don’t have corroboration.”
Severino’s organization, and others in her tight network, have an immense amount of money—and credibility—at stake. On Thursday, she is scheduled to lead an “I Stand With Brett” rally on Capitol Hill, along with Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, and Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the anti-abortion activist group Susan B. Anthony List. Pro-life groups like these coordinate closely with members of the legal team that has pushed for Kavanaugh’s confirmation, such as Leonard Leo, who runs the Federalist Society. As part of these coordinated efforts, Severino’s organization announced a $1.5 million ad investment featuring a character testimony from one of Kavanaugh’s college friends (who, recently, has seemed less resolute in her defense of the judge).
In an email conversation before the third allegation emerged, Hasson told me that “the tone of the discussion has spiraled out of control.” The recent head of her organization, Ed Whelan, was instrumental in securing and promoting Kavanaugh’s nomination, but he took a temporary leave of absence this week after he speculated on Twitter that one of Kavanaugh’s classmates had committed the assault against Ford, trying to prove a case of mistaken identity. “The media seems to have tried and convicted [Kavanaugh] already,” Hasson said on Monday. “Democrats seem to have no concern over whether they are destroying the reputation of [a] person who might be innocent.”
For Catholics like Hasson, this summer was a whirlwind of sexual-abuse allegations: When Pope Francis was accused of obscuring the inappropriate conduct of a D.C. cardinal, Hasson organized a letter from prominent Catholic women calling for an investigation. Stephen White, her colleague at the EPPC, told me that “the exhausting slog” of news about Catholic Church abuse “has really weaned a lot of people off of the habit of viewing sexual-abuse allegations through a partisan lens.”
When it comes to Kavanaugh, however, Hasson sees the allegations against him as highly partisan. “I can’t imagine a person with pro-life convictions who would want a person credibly accused of sexual assault to be on the Supreme Court,” she said on Monday. “That said, I think we are heading into dangerous territory … Progressives are hurting the #MeToo movement—and real women who have suffered, and real men who might be falsely accused—with their rush to judgment on thin allegations.”
But far outside of Washington, women who are sympathetic to the pro-life movement have watched what’s happening with dismay. Rachael Denhollander—who helped lead the group of women who spoke out against Larry Nassar, the Michigan State University doctor accused of sexually abusing hundreds of female athletes—told me in an interview last Thursday that she is seeing “a very typical, age-old response” to the allegations against Kavanaugh: “Institutional protectionism. That’s wanting to say that sexual assault is terrible, but it’s different in this case because she’s politically motivated, because she’s lying, because he would never do that.”
Denhollander is an evangelical Christian who has testified to the rejection she faced in her own church when she and her husband pressed for investigations into sexual-abuse allegations. She has been “grieved” as she has watched big-name figures like the evangelist Franklin Graham and the commentator Ralph Reed downplay or deny the original claims against Kavanaugh. “At minimum,” she said, “what we should all be able to agree on is that … our response should be ‘This is serious, and we need to know the truth.’” The conservative world “is my community,” she told me. “I want very desperately for them to do the right thing. And they’re not.”
Ford, the first accuser, spent at least part of her professional life inside a conservative religious world: She completed a graduate degree and served as a visiting professor at Pepperdine University, which is part of the largely evangelical Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Cindy Miller-Perrin, a psychology professor who knew Ford when she was at the school in the late 1990s, said that faith often comes up in hiring conversations, and that Ford’s extended time there suggests she is or was supportive of the school’s mission. Watching an old colleague become the target of a charged, partisan conversation has been frustrating, she told me. “For me, it’s not a political issue, as much as: Do I believe what she said?” Miller-Perrin said. “And I do, personally.”
This is where the conservative legal advocates in D.C. may be divided from the popular movements they ostensibly represent. Many people who support conservative social causes or voted for Trump primarily so that he would put conservative justices on the Court seem to care about the truth, not the outcome, of the Kavanaugh allegations. Conservative legal advocates, by contrast, have fully committed to supporting Kavanaugh, no matter what his accusers say—at least for now.
“People who want to taint the pro-life movement will point out the worst behavior of President Trump—or, if it turns out … bad behavior on the part of Judge Kavanaugh,” said Helen Alvaré, a law professor at George Mason University who is active in the pro-life movement, when I spoke with her on Monday. But, she said, “grassroots pro-lifers are not as invested in what groups that fund campaigns are invested in.” Local activists don’t have much knowledge of the machinations in D.C., she said. Conservative activists may describe the accusations as a smear campaign, and liberal activists may call on senators to believe women and victims of sexual abuse. Outside of these elite circles, however, people’s views on the situation may be more ambiguous.
Senators have framed these hearings as an exercise in justice: to give accused and accuser the chance to speak, to arm legislators with more information, to show the American public that they take sexual-abuse allegations seriously. But it’s possible that they won’t illuminate much at all, outside of the partisan goals of various activist groups. “You want all the facts in your hands, and we’re very uncertain whether we will ever really have them—either this week, or years from now,” Alvaré said. “I’m not sure how people will feel after these hearings.”