Other than political journalists and the good folks at C-SPAN, no sane human being has the patience, let alone the desire, to keep up with 30-plus hours of testimony on Capitol Hill. When the hearings are shorter, there are exceptions to that general rule, as when James Comey riveted the Senate and the American public not long after Donald Trump fired him last year.
But over all, testimony that runs for hours on end is a bore, and the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh next week are sure to lull anyone not paying close attention into a state of stupor. Not exactly a good way to spend the waning, post-Labor Day summer.
As someone who sat through the hearings for Neil Gorsuch and lived to tell the tale, I’m here to tell you that there is a better way. For one, don’t go to Washington. Lines to get into the Hart Senate Office Building can be long and you may not get a seat. And if you do happen to make it inside, the actual proceedings aren’t exactly captivating — reporters, congressional aides, members of the public, and even senators get up and leave at will, only to come back later and pretend they’re paying attention.
Of course, Kavanaugh’s pending nomination is monumental for Trump’s presidency and the future of the Supreme Court; the fate of Roe v. Wade, the president’s power to rein in the Robert Mueller investigation, and a host of civil rights and political issues all hang in the balance. But the way these hearing are structured, not all of that will be readily absorbed or captured by the casual observer.
Like Gorsuch before him, Kavanaugh is being trained by friendly senators and aides in the ways of artful dodging of questions — though arguably none of them can prepare him for the fire he can expect from California’s Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor who will be making her debut at a Supreme Court confirmation hearing alongside fellow Democrat Cory Booker. (The pair are the Senate Judiciary Committee’s first two black members … ever.) Other lawmakers may have surprises up their sleeves, too.
Without further ado, here’s a guide on what to expect at next week’s hearing:
Day 1: September 4
The day after Labor Day, it’s likely committee members will be in good spirits and in the mood for talking. A lot. The very first session is largely performative. It will only consist of a few introductions, an opening statement from Kavanaugh, who will undoubtedly vow to be faithful to the Constitution and respect for precedent — whatever that means — and remarks from each of the 21 senators in the committee, with Republicans and Democrats taking turns in order of seniority.
The body’s partisan split means that half the proceedings will consist of glowing assessments of the nominee and his background, and the other half of stern lectures directed at the nominee, covering everything Democrats care about these days: Trump’s presidential excesses, Kavanaugh’s apparent hostility to abortion rights, his views about the legitimacy of independent counsels, and how the Supreme Court could play a pivotal role in it all.
An enterprising Democratic senator may feel inspired to play for the cameras and deliver a version of Ted Kennedy’s famed “Robert Bork’s America” speech, a moment in Senate lore that led up to Bork’s defeat and the rise of Justice Anthony Kennedy. Look out for clips of individual senators talking down to a stone-faced Kavanaugh making the rounds on social media. It’s inevitable.
Day 2: September 5
If everything goes smoothly on Tuesday, you can expect Wednesday to be the meat and potatoes of the Kavanaugh hearings. Gorsuch’s second day lasted about 10 hours, and this one won’t be any different.
This is when the actual questioning begins. Each senator, again alternating by party and order of seniority, will get to throw softballs and hardballs at the nominee. Republicans, particularly more senior members on the committee, are likely to take the sting out of a number of questionable parts of Kavanaugh’s record. They’ll probably ask him about his days as staff secretary for George W. Bush, a shadowy period from which virtually no records have been produced publicly; his NSFW memorandum to Kenneth Starr about President Bill Clinton’s sexual dalliances with Monica Lewinsky; and the strange mountain of credit card debt he incurred on baseball tickets.
Democrats, who are keeping their cards close to their vests, are still gaming out their strategy, but in a sense their work is cut out for them. Unlike Gorsuch, whose record was sizable but more modest, Kavanaugh’s voluminous paper trail for Starr, the Bush White House, and on Washington’s second-most powerful court gives them plenty of ammunition to grill the nominee. Or to question him openly about the gaping hole in his paper record. Expect questions about Kavanaugh’s role in decisions about torture and electronic surveillance; about whether he perjured himself in 2006 before the same committee when faced with similar questions then; about his role in Hargan v. Garza, an explosive D.C. Circuit case at the intersection of abortion and immigration where Kavanaugh was front and center; and inquiries about his knowledge about the indiscretions of Alex Kozinski, the first federal judge felled by the #MeToo movement.
This is also the day with the greatest potential for viral moments, which the Trump era has already given us plenty of: A few not-so-good judicial nominees have been roundly humiliated by dogged questioning from senators, and I wouldn’t put it past some of them to try a similar tactic.
Days 3 and 4: September 6 and 7
Unless a bombshell drops on Wednesday that will call for an additional round of questions for Kavanaugh on Thursday, the last day of hearings, which may extend for an additional day on Friday, will only consist of outside witnesses proclaiming how great or terrible the nominee is.
There aren’t many surprises here, though a few witnesses do stand out: John Dean, the White House counsel who flipped on President Richard Nixon, is set to make an appearance on the Democratic side and talk about “the abuse of executive power,” about which Kavanaugh appears to be an expert. Another notable witness is Rochelle Garza, a Texas lawyer I profiled for The Cut who represented an undocumented teen who was seeking an abortion; in that case, the Trump administration fought tooth and nail to deny the young woman the right to end her pregnancy, and Kavanaugh, perhaps unsurprisingly, sided with the administration, only to be reversed by the full D.C. Circuit.
None of these witnesses is expected to move the needle on wavering senators who claim to be undecided about Kavanaugh — Susan Collins, I’m looking at you — but in this volatile environment, anything can happen.