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Excerpt: "The Kavanaugh confirmation stirred painful discussion about gender dynamics and who is empowered in our country."

Brett Kavanaugh. (photo: REX/Shutterstock)
Brett Kavanaugh. (photo: REX/Shutterstock)

We Spent 10 Months Investigating Kavanaugh. Here's What We Found.

By Kate Kelly and Robin Pogrebin, The Atlantic

18 September 19

Two journalists detail the results of their reporting on the Supreme Court justice’s past.

ears ago, when she was practicing her closing arguments at the family dinner table, Martha Kavanaugh often returned to her signature line as a state prosecutor. “Use your common sense,” she’d say. “What rings true? What rings false?”

Those words made a strong impression on her young son, Brett. They also made a strong impression on us, as we embarked on our 10-month investigation of the Supreme Court justice. We conducted hundreds of interviews with principal players in Kavanaugh’s education, career, and confirmation. We read thousands of documents. We reviewed hours of television interviews, along with reams of newspaper, magazine, and digital coverage. We studied maps of Montgomery Country, Maryland, as well as housing-renovation plans and court records. We watched Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings multiple times.

In reviewing our findings, we looked at them in two ways: through the prism of reporting and through the lens of common sense.

As women, we know that many sexual assaults aren’t corroborated. Many happen without witnesses, and many victims avoid reporting them out of shame or fear. But as reporters, we need evidence; we rely on the facts. Without corroboration, the claims of Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez would be hard to accept.

As women, we could not help but be moved by the accounts of Ford and Ramirez, and understand why they made such a lasting impact. As reporters, we had a responsibility to test those predilections. We had to offer Kavanaugh the benefit of the doubt, venturing to empathize with his suffering if he were falsely accused.

As mothers of daughters, we were prone to believe and support the women who spoke up. As mothers of sons, we had to imagine what it would be like if the men we loved were wrongly charged with these offenses.

As people, our gut reaction was that the allegations of Ford and Ramirez from the past rang true. As reporters, we uncovered nothing to suggest that Kavanaugh has mistreated women in the years since.

Ultimately, we combined our notebooks with our common sense and came to believe an utterly human narrative: that Ford and Ramirez were mistreated by Kavanaugh when he was a teenager, and that Kavanaugh over the next 35 years became a better person.

We come to this complicated, seemingly contradictory, and perhaps unsatisfying conclusion based on the facts as we found them.

Unproven as it is, we found that the account of Christine Blasey Ford—to use Martha’s phrase—“rings true.” Ford’s social circle overlapped with that of Kavanaugh as a high-school student. She dated his good friend Chris Garrett. Her good friend Leland Keyser dated Mark Judge. Judge and Kavanaugh, whom Ford recalled being together in the room where she was allegedly assaulted, were close friends. They were often seen together at parties, and their tendency to drink beer, sometimes to excess, was well known.

None of that means that Ford was, in fact, assaulted by Kavanaugh. But it does mean that she has a baseline level of credibility as an accuser.

Her credibility is affirmed in other ways, too. We have seen no evidence of Ford fabricating stories, either recently or historically. Multiple people attest to her honesty. Last August, she passed a polygraph test focused on her Kavanaugh memories. Her former boyfriend Brian Merrick said in a sworn affidavit to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he hadn’t known of her fear of flying or of tight spaces when they dated in the 1990s, raising questions for Republicans about the anxiety issues Ford has attributed in part to the alleged assault. But Merrick also said in the affidavit and in a later interview that he has never doubted Ford’s truthfulness.

Experts on memory and sex crimes say that Ford’s spotty recollections of the alleged assault are in line with those of a typical victim: clear on the basic elements of the violation and its perpetrator (especially given that, in this case, that person was alleged to be an acquaintance), and hazy on ancillary elements like the exact location and the transportation that got her there and back. Victims also often keep their experiences to themselves.

“She was one of the most competent, credible, and believable witnesses I have ever seen in over a decade of prosecuting cases,” said Allison Leotta, who spent 12 years as a federal prosecutor in Washington, focusing on sex crimes, domestic violence, and child abuse. “What she described was a very bread-and-butter acquaintance sexual assault.”

Using Martha’s common-sense standard, we can see no reason Ford would have come forward with her account if she didn’t believe it. Ford has led a quiet life for many years. She has no love of the spotlight, and she pleaded with lawmakers and The Washington Post for weeks to preserve her privacy. Only when Ford believed she was on the brink of being exposed did she identify herself publicly. After that, she endured a terrifying series of death threats and other harassment, forcing her family to separate at times and to relocate. The time it took to testify and secure herself and her family forced Ford to take time away from her teaching job.

Moreover, we have seen no evidence that she was influenced by anyone, other than the family and friends from whom she sought counsel, the California congresswoman and senator she contacted for help, and the lawyers she handpicked from a list of suggestions. To date, Ford has enjoyed no apparent financial gain as a result of coming forward. Her lawyers and public-relations advisers donated their time. Her travel to Washington was covered, to keep her safe and comfortable before and after her testimony. Her security costs were handled by a crowdsourced GoFundMe account. The money left over once her expenses were paid has been designated for trauma survivors.

Other leads we pursued neither indicted nor exonerated Kavanaugh.

We located Judge, who declined to elaborate much beyond his statement to the public and the FBI, which was that he didn’t remember the incident. We reached out, repeatedly, to Patrick Smyth, who as a boy allegedly attended the party but did not witness the assault. Smyth did not answer our calls and emails, but he has consistently said to friends as well as to the FBI that he has no memory of the event or of Ford. We spoke multiple times to Keyser, who also said that she didn’t recall that get-together or any others like it. In fact, she challenged Ford’s accuracy. “I don’t have any confidence in the story,” she said.

Keyser thought the whole setup Ford described—the Columbia Country Club, followed by a gathering with boys at a local home—sounded wrong, given that Keyser had been working at the Congressional Country Club that summer. But Keyser acknowledged that she was a member of the Columbia club, and that she might have stopped by to watch Ford dive and then decided to go to a party. (Ford also said not to assume that the gathering had originated at the club, guessing that it might have been arranged by Keyser and Judge by phone or in person elsewhere.)

Keyser said she didn’t recognize Kavanaugh from high-school photos. She did recognize and remember Judge, whom she said she had dated once or twice and bumped into at a recovery meeting in Potomac in the mid-aughts. It is possible that Ford’s account is wrong and that Keyser’s lack of recollection is proof of that. But experts say that many memories of insignificant people and places in our lives aren’t stored. In the months after the confirmation battle, Keyser continued to appear perturbed by her unexpected role in it, indicating in a text message to one of us late in March that she believed she was being surveilled at home, possibly by people related to the Kavanaugh matter.

We looked for the house where Ford alleges the assault happened; Ford has said it was located somewhere between hers, in Potomac, and the Columbia Country Club. She has described the layout: barely furnished, containing an upstairs level, and, perhaps most critically, featuring a narrow set of stairs with walls on both sides. She said that Judge in particular seemed possessive of the place, suggesting that it belonged to him, a friend, or a relation.

Working with those parameters, we looked for family members whose house Judge might have accessed, with or without its inhabitants’ permission. We ruled out his older siblings, who, according to his brother, Michael, were not living in that area at that time. We also ruled out his grandmother, who had lived on the Washington side of Chevy Chase, with her adult daughter, Anita—Mark and Michael’s aunt. The two women rarely went out in those days, according to Michael. (The layout of that house, which was sold years ago and was recently rented by Mike Pence before he became vice president, also didn’t match.)

Eventually, we generated a short list of two possibilities, one belonging to a Judge family friend in Potomac and the other to a Georgetown Prep classmate in Bethesda. Both houses have been renovated, and floor plans and other housing documents in Montgomery County from before 1986 are scarce. Ultimately, because the houses’ layouts from 1982 couldn’t be firmly established, Ford could not make clear determinations on whether either resembled the one she remembered.

Using Martha’s common-sense test, the claims of Deborah Ramirez, while not proven by witnesses, also ring true to us. Ramirez, who was a Yale classmate of Kavanaugh’s, said he drunkenly thrust his penis at her during a party in their freshman-year dormitory, Lawrance Hall. The people who allegedly witnessed the event—Kavanaugh’s friends Kevin Genda, David Todd, and David White—have kept mum about it. Kavanaugh has denied it. If such an incident had occurred, Kavanaugh said, it would have been the “talk of campus.”

Our reporting suggests that, in fact, it was. At least five people have a strong recollection of hearing about the alleged incident with Ramirez long before Kavanaugh was a federal judge. Their Yale classmates Kenneth Appold and Richard Oh recall hearing about it immediately after it happened. Ramirez’s mother, Mary Ann LeBlanc, recalls being told about it by her daughter—without specifics—during Ramirez’s college years. Michael Wetstone, a graduate-school classmate of Appold in religious studies, recalls being told about the incident by Appold within a few years of when it allegedly happened. A fifth person—an unidentified friend of Ramirez’s who said in a recent affidavit that she’d heard about the incident in the 1990s—remembers being told about it within a decade of its alleged occurrence. And two other people from Kavanaugh and Ramirez’s Yale class, Chad Ludington and James Roche, vaguely remember hearing about something happening to Ramirez during freshman year.

Of course, given the lack of eyewitness corroboration, Ramirez could be misremembering the situation, perhaps as a result of inebriation. She has said she doesn’t remember telling anyone what happened in the immediate aftermath of the alleged event. But given that the story got around campus anyway, either Ramirez is mistaken in that, or some other witness to the event spread the account to others. Like Ford, Ramirez has no apparent personal or political motivation to bring down Kavanaugh. It did not even occur to her to tell her story publicly; she was contacted about it by The New Yorker, which was following up on a tip it had received from another source. Many friends and former classmates have described Ramirez as both honest and guileless.

Temperament was not a central focus of our investigation, but our reporting showed Kavanaugh’s to be historically courteous. Despite superlative marks from the American Bar Association and many associates, though, Kavanaugh was lacking his usual evenness in the September 27 hearing.

His furious, indignant exchanges with senators during the testimony were searing. They caused retired Justice John Paul Stevens, who had once praised Kavanaugh’s jurisprudence, to say the judge was unfit for the high court. More than 2,400 law professors and many other Americans agreed. The bar association called for an FBI investigation. Given that the hearings had technically been a job interview and not a criminal proceeding, several pundits argued that Kavanaugh had blown it.

On October 4, Kavanaugh realized his mistake and tried to make amends. His performance the prior week, he wrote in an op-ed, “reflected my overwhelming frustration at being wrongly accused, without corroboration, of horrible conduct completely contrary to my record and character. My statement and answers also reflected my deep distress at the unfairness of how this allegation has been handled … I might have been too emotional at times. I know that my tone was sharp, and I said a few things I should not have said. I hope everyone can understand that I was there as a son, husband and dad. I testified with five people foremost in my mind: my mom, my dad, my wife, and most of all my daughters.” He promised Americans that he would return to the equilibrium and fair-mindedness he had long demonstrated.

Former colleagues described him as unassuming and unpretentious— “a Bud Light kind of guy,” in the words of Richard Re, an assistant professor at UCLA School of Law, who clerked for Kavanaugh on the federal appeals court. Young lawyers were struck by his interest in their careers, how Kavanaugh would chat for hours after Federalist Society gatherings or—in bumping into them on the D.C. Metro—inquire about their work in a way that reflected how closely he’d listened in the past.

A journalist who covered Kavanaugh’s circuit court saw him often in the cafeteria line, talking baseball with the staff as he ordered his sandwich. Dozens of former clerks, many of them women, cited his mentorship, his warmth, his eagerness to help advance their professional prospects, and his willingness to support their personal lives, including raising families. Many said they had never seen Kavanaugh as inflamed as he had been on September 27—neither before nor since.

None of this is an excuse for what many regarded as an offensive and potentially prejudicial performance. But it provides some context.

As reporters, it’s not for us to opine on whether Kavanaugh’s youthful misdeeds or angry testimony should have blocked him from the Supreme Court. That question was left to the president, who supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation; the Senate, which voted to approve him; and ultimately, American voters who showed their feelings at the ballot box and in impeachment petitions. Some thought the mere possibility that Kavanaugh had assaulted Ford and others—allegations that, they felt, were bolstered by the stories of heavy drinking and chauvinistic yearbook boasts—meant Kavanaugh should have been replaced. Others point out that our juvenile-justice system is built on the long-held belief that a young person’s bad decisions shouldn’t haunt them for years to come. That is why most juvenile records and many juvenile-court proceedings are kept largely confidential.

The Kavanaugh confirmation stirred painful discussion about gender dynamics and who is empowered in our country. Parents had tough conversations with their children about consent and abuse. Women thought hard about their underrepresentation in politics and in other professions. Grown men—including classmates of Kavanaugh’s at Yale and Georgetown Prep—contacted old girlfriends and apologized for pushy sexual behavior. Others hardened their belief that women are more likely than ever to interpret innocuous touches and comments as sexual assault or harassment, evidence of a #MeToo movement gone too far.

Since the contentious confirmation hearings, the gulf separating Kavanaugh’s admirers and his detractors has only widened. In late December, most voters polled by the research firm PerryUndem believed Kavanaugh had lied about his teenage years. Forty-nine percent had a largely unfavorable impression of him, as compared with the 29 percent who had a favorable one. Thirty-five percent said the Senate did the right thing in confirming him; a close 41 percent disagreed. (By contrast, an overwhelming 58 percent of Americans polled after Clarence Thomas’s confirmation supported it, and 30 percent were opposed.) Fifty-five percent of voters believed Ford over Kavanaugh—a 16-point margin.

At the time of this writing, Kavanaugh is about to begin his second term on the court. Whether he’ll prove a centrist and occasional swing voter in the mold of his mentor, the retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, or a more reliable conservative like his onetime schoolmate Justice Neil Gorsuch, remains to be seen. How Kavanaugh—and indeed the country—has been shaped by his confirmation will also take time to understand. Painful as it seems now, the process had much to teach. As Virgil wrote in Book One of The Aeneid, “Someday it will be helpful to have recalled even these events.” your social media marketing partner
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