Congress still grappling with Kavanaugh confirmation fallout

Lawmakers receive outpouring of personal stories

By CNN'S SUNLEN SERFATY CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.
Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images

Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of a sexual assault, confers with her attorney Michael Bromwich while testifying before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing. 

(CNN) - When Christine Blasey Ford said she could not remember certain details about her alleged assault by Brett Kavanaugh, Rep. Ann McLane Kuster could relate.

The New Hampshire Democrat says she experienced something similar after she was sexually assaulted some 40 years ago.

Like Ford, Kuster can't pinpoint the exact date of the event. But the two women say they remember other aspects of the incident vividly.

Ford told the Senate Judiciary Committee she is "100%" certain Kavanaugh assaulted her, while Kuster has said that she will never forget her assailant, whom she has described as "a classmate egged on by his fraternity brothers."

After vehemently denying the allegations, Kavanaugh is now the newest justice on the Supreme Court. But Capitol Hill is still grappling with the fallout from the divisive confirmation fight and an outpouring of personal stories from constituents and fellow lawmakers who shared accounts of their own experiences of sexual assault.

In the midst of incendiary partisanship surrounding the blockbuster congressional hearings and historically tight confirmation vote, Republican and Democratic women alike spoke about how they and women close to them have been affected by sexual misconduct. Some women, like Ford, described events they said took place decades ago. Others publicly acknowledged for the first time that they have had #MeToo experiences, while declining to specify what happened.

The accounts of women who came forward to tell their stories during the confirmation fight shaped the conversation that unfolded on Capitol Hill, though it may be months or even years before it is clear what the lasting effect will be on Congress from the outcome of the Kavanaugh hearings and the decision of so many women to speak about their experiences with sexual violence.

Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell, who has spoken about her own #MeToo experiences in the past, said in an interview that women in the congressional district she represents in Michigan told her heart-wrenching personal stories in the midst of the Kavanaugh confirmation. "So many people had stories, it was unbelievable," she said.

The congresswoman said that she was in Ann Arbor, Michigan on the day the Senate voted to elevate Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court when a woman came up to her and started sobbing. The woman said that her sister had committed suicide years ago after a sexual assault.

The Michigan Democrat has also heard from men in her district who have confided in her about their own fears and anxieties over the current cultural reckoning over harassment and assault.

"I can't tell you the number of men now who tell me they're just not going to hire women because they say it's too complicated," Dingell said. "People are scared. ... I think men are worried that their lives are going to be destroyed."

The challenge now, the Democratic congresswoman says, is to figure out how to deal with unacceptable behavior so that "women aren't hurt in the progress being made in the workplace," while at the same time "making sure that due process is being preserved."

Democratic and Republican women speak out

The same day Ford testified, five Democratic congresswomen sent a letter to President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell identifying themselves as domestic and sexual assault victims and calling for votes on the nomination to be postponed and an investigation into allegations against Kavanaugh.

The letter was signed by Kuster and Dingell as well as Reps. Jackie Speier of California, Gwen Moore of Wisconsin and Alma Adams of North Carolina, all of whom had spoken publicly about experiences of harassment, assault or domestic violence prior to the confirmation fight.

It wasn't just Democratic lawmakers who made reference to #MeToo moments in their own lives as the confirmation fight played out.

An Alaska Public Media reporter asked Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski if she had ever had a #MeToo moment. The Alaskan senator replied that she had, saying "yes," though she did not elaborate further. In the end, Murkowski was the lone GOP senator to oppose Kavanaugh's nomination. The senator said she believes Kavanaugh is a "good man" in a speech explaining her decision, but said she "could not conclude that he is the right person for the court at this time."

Separately, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, a Kavanaugh defender, revealed during an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper that she is a victim of sexual assault.

Conway suggested, however, that people who are not responsible for sexual misconduct unfairly became targets of blame as the confirmation battle became intensely politicized. "Let's just be honest what this is about. It's raw partisan politics," she said, discussing the Kavanaugh fight.

In other instances, some women in Congress shared stories of women close to them who have been affected by assault.

A few days after announcing she opposed the Kavanaugh nomination, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota told The New York Times that her mother was a victim of sexual assault. Heitkamp has since become embroiled in controversy and has issued an apology after her campaign misidentified some women as survivors of abuse in an ad.

'So many women came forward'

Congress, over the last year, has faced #MeToo moments of its own.

A number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were forced to resign in the past year after women came forward with misconduct allegations, shining a spotlight on the need for Congress to get its own house in order for how sexual harassment claims are made and handled on Capitol Hill. Earlier this year, the House and Senate passed their own versions of bills to overhaul the process, but lawmakers still have yet to reach a final deal, leading to criticism from advocates for reform over the long-stalled legislation.

Republican Sen. John Kennedy, a Kavanaugh supporter who sits on the Judiciary Committee which vetted Kavanaugh's nomination, said that hearing personal stories from women "drives home the point that sexual violence is prevalent in America" and said that the #MeToo movement had opened his eyes to the extent of the problem.

"I didn't realize how prevalent it was until the MeToo movement started," the Louisiana senator said.

"I've talked to friends of mine who happen to be women and they say, 'what planet did you just parachute in from, this has been going on forever,'" he added.

Kennedy said, "I'm not saying I never saw anything, but I just had no idea, and I'm convinced it's real. And I understand the reluctance to speak up. And I think we've got to deal with it. But I don't think you deal with it by throwing out due process."

Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, an opponent of the Kavanaugh nomination and also a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, described the confirmation process as "a galvanizing moment for so many people to come forward."

The Hawaii senator said that several close friends she has known for a long time recently confided in her about their own experiences of rape and sexual assault.

"So many women came forward and told us their accounts that they had never shared before," Hirono said. "This was a moment for them to come forward to be heard, and I know they were hoping to be believed."

'What she said was very important'

After Ford testified before Congress, President Donald Trump mocked her at a rally, repeatedly saying, "I don't remember," in imitation of the fact that she could not recall every detail of the alleged event.

"'How did you get home? I don't remember. How'd you get there? I don't remember. Where is the place? I don't remember. How many years ago was it? I don't know,'" Trump said to cheers and applause.

After vehemently denying the allegations against him, Kavanaugh went on to be confirmed along a party-line vote by the Senate with one Democrat voting for his nomination after Senate Republicans argued that an FBI investigation found no corroborating evidence to substantiate allegations against him.

Dingell worries that women may be more reluctant to come forward after seeing how Ford was treated and how despite her allegations, Kavanaugh was still confirmed to the Supreme Court.

"Part of the problem for a woman is that when she comes forward ... you get branded, you're a troublemaker," she said, adding, "I have stories I won't tell to this day, if I were to tell the stories they would have major implications that I'm just unwilling to share."

Kuster says she found it painful to watch Ford recount her allegations in front of members of Congress, but she also believes that the California professor's decision to testify publicly will ultimately help survivors.

"People are often inhibited from coming forward and by the time they do have the courage to tell their story they might not have all of the details at hand," the congresswoman said.

"She was able to articulate the way people feel when they have these glimpses of memory," Kuster said, adding, "That's a very common experience for anyone experiencing trauma and in particular for survivors of sexual assault ... so I think what she said was very important in our continuing effort to educate the public."

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