There is precedent for FBI involvement. In 1991, when Anita Hill alleged sexual harassment by the then–Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray requested that the bureau investigate the claims, which it did.
The Clarence Thomas exception
Why would this time be any different? As politically charged as the Thomas hearings were, the current moment is even more acrimonious. While the defeat of Robert Bork’s bid in 1987 had begun the stark politicization of Supreme Court nominations, they were not yet a standard political food fight. These days, contentious nominations and close votes are the rule, not the exception. Beyond that, Senate Republicans might have felt more confident in 1991 that the claims against Thomas would not derail his nomination than they are today. Contemporary society as a whole is less forgiving of sexual harassment, though the Senate may not have changed as much.
Some Kavanaugh supporters have argued that Ford’s accusations are merely a tactic of political gamesmanship, intended to either derail or delay his nomination. Some have argued, without evidence, that Ford is a Democratic operative. (Republicans can hardly be said to be hearing the allegations in good faith. “I’ll listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close,” Senator Lindsey Graham said. “Here’s what I want to tell you: In the very near future, Judge Kavanaugh will be on the United States Supreme Court,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday.) They have argued that Kavanaugh’s behavior, even if true, was just boys being boys, or just horseplay, and that in any case, what happened then is ancient history that shouldn’t affect his nomination today.
Some have even suggested that the allegations are a case of mistaken identity. In the most extreme, and astonishing, case, the conservative legal scholar and activist Ed Whelan wrote a long (and long-awaited) Twitter thread that argued that Ford was confusing Kavanaugh with another classmate. The argument involved speculative connections, floor plans, Google Maps, and a baseless allegation that another man, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s whom Whelan says he resembles, might have actually assaulted Ford. Ford rebutted the claim, saying she knew both men and would not have confused them.
Whelan, facing intense pressure, deleted the thread and apologized, saying, “I made an appalling and inexcusable mistake of judgment in posting the tweet thread in a way that identified Kavanaugh’s Georgetown Prep classmate.” In reality, he had not just identified the classmate, but had also suggested he might have tried to sexually assault a woman.
Negotiations over whether and when Ford might appear before the Judiciary Committee continue. Republicans face a choice between slowing down the Kavanaugh nomination and acting dismissively toward a possible victim. An activist group is already airing TV and digital ads in six states attacking Republican senators for their handling of the Kavanaugh allegations. If Ford does testify, Republicans will have to appear respectful in their questioning; they have floated plans to have staffers, rather than the aging, entirely male majority members, do the talking (though Ford has reportedly asked that only members question her). Meanwhile, the president has dropped his restraint, and has all weekend to deliver more commentary about Ford. It’s been an ugly week in the Kavanaugh nomination, and there’s a good chance it will get uglier.