In a riveting moment of momentous political theater, a 51-year-old psychology professor told a hushed US Senate panel how Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the US Supreme Court, sexually assaulted her in a suburban Washington home 36 years ago when both were teenagers.
In a nervous but steady voice that at times trembled with emotion, Christine Blasey Ford recounted how Mr Kavanaugh and a friend, Mark Judge, shoved her into an empty bedroom one night in the summer of 1982.
Mr Kavanaugh, she testified, then pinned her to a bed, trying to pull off her clothing and at one point covering her mouth when she tried to scream.
“I believed he was going to rape me,” she said.
“It was hard for me to breathe,” Dr Ford testified, reading from a prepared text, “and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.”
The encounter did not end, she said, until Mr Kavanaugh’s friend jumped onto the pair on the bed, and they all tumbled to the floor, allowing Dr Ford to escape the room.
Her most searing memory, she said, was “the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense”.
Dr Ford’s account exploded publicly two weeks ago, so its details were known throughout the country. But the effect of Dr Ford’s testimony in the jammed, wood-panelled Senate chamber was stunning.
She recounted how in the months and years after the alleged attack, she struggled with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The incident “drastically altered my life,” she added, noting that she insisted in 2012 that a second front door be installed during a renovation of her California home – a result, she said, of claustrophobia triggered by the alleged assault.
Dr Ford noted that the decision to testify “terrified” her, and that she has been dogged by death threats and harassment since going public. Nevertheless, she said she felt it was her civic duty to come forward.
“I am no one’s pawn,” she said.
Dr Ford’s account is the most detailed of several claiming that Mr Kavanaugh, as a high school student and then a Yale undergraduate, was a heavy-drinking lout who allegedly took part in various assaults against young women.
The accounts, some on-the-record and some anonymous, include claims of alleged dosing of drinks given to young women and an alleged shoving incident outside a Washington bar in 1998.
The stakes could not be higher for Mr Kavanaugh, 53, who would be the second Supreme Court justice appointed by President Trump. His appointment would solidify a conservative majority on the nine-member court, whose justices are appointed for life. Under the US Constitution, the Supreme Court is an equal member of government alongside the President and the Congress, and its power in shaping US law is immense.
A conservative majority on the court, Democrats fear, could mean the overturning of numerous civil rights-related laws, including the right to abortion, which was legalised in 1973.
Yesterday’s hearing, whose format Democrats and Republicans wrestled over for days, was Dr Ford’s first public appearance since the allegations surfaced. GOP senators, fearing the optics of an all-white male panel grilling an apparent victim of sexual assault, opted to have a female prosecutor from Arizona, Rachel Mitchell, question Dr Ford about the details of her story and her decision to come forward.
The questioning, however, seemed to only bolster Dr Ford’s credibility. She was careful to make some small corrections on her previous written statements, and was unfazed by questions that seemed designed to question her general memory and recall.
She also pointed out, and was given the chance to emphasie, that she first contacted her congresswoman and the Washington Post hotline on July 6, when Mr Kavanaugh was on the short list of candidates for the Supreme Court. It was her hope, she said, they she could pass on her information about Mr Kavanaugh before any final selection, so as to avoid any charges of partisanship.
Under questioning from Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, Dr Ford said she was “100 per cent” certain Mr Kavanaugh was her assailant.
But her account is not air-tight: she could not state in what home the attack took place or how she got home. Those gaps – which sexual assault advocates say is common – were seized upon some GOP senators, who seemed unmoved by Ford’s testimony.
Nevertheless, early reviews on Dr Ford’s testimony were overwhelmingly positive, even among many Republicans, who found little to find major fault with.
The Senate Committee, under Republican control, has been assailed for failing to call in the FBI and conducting a full investigation. They’ve also been hammered for not subpoening Mr Judge, the teen in the room during the alleged attacks. Mr Judge, who is believed to be hiding out in a beach house three hours from Washington, has become notorious for his memoir of his teenage alcoholism, which recounts escapades that include a thinly-veiled Mr Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh is scheduled to testify in his defense later today. By all accounts, his future as a Supreme Court Justice hangs in the balance.
Larry Hackett is the former editor-in-chief of People magazine, and a current contributor to the US morning television news program Good Morning America