Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is known for taking a sober, detail-oriented approach in questioning those who appear before the committee. It’s a fitting style for the former Hennepin County prosecutor, but it doesn’t always lead to fireworks in the high-profile Supreme Court and cabinet hearings that this committee hosts.
That’s a reason why Klobuchar’s exchange with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Thursday was so remarkable — and a reason why pundits and other political figures turned to the two-term senator as a bright spot in a day otherwise defined by pain, anger and concerns over a deteriorating civic process.
Kavanaugh appeared before the Judiciary Committee to face questions over an allegation that he sexually assaulted a woman, Christine Blasey Ford, while the two were teenagers in 1982. The federal judge’s drinking habits were under the microscope: Ford alleges Kavanaugh was visibly intoxicated during the assault, and a wealth of evidence indicates he traveled in hard-drinking social circles in high school and college. Kavanaugh denies Ford’s allegations and the characterization of a booze-soaked adolescence, and has insisted he focused on sports, school, and church.
Klobuchar followed this line of inquiry and prefaced it by noting that her father, the longtime Star Tribune journalist Jim Klobuchar, was a longtime abuser of alcohol. Kavanaugh prefaced his own responses to Klobuchar by noting the respect he has for the senator — a kindness he extended to no other Democrat on the panel.
“Drinking is one thing, but the concern is about truthfulness,” Klobuchar said. “In your written testimony, you said sometimes you had too many drinks. Was there ever a time when you drank so much you couldn’t remember what happened, or part of what happened, the night before?”
“I, no, I remember what happened,” Kavanaugh replied. “I think you’ve probably had beers, senator.” Klobuchar, nodding slightly, returned to the questioning: “You’re saying there’s never been a case when you drank so much that you didn’t remember what happened the night before, or part of what happened?”
“You’re asking about a blackout,” the judge responded. “I don’t know, have you?” A moment of stunned silence. “Can you answer the question, judge?” Klobuchar continued. “That’s not happened, that’s your answer?”
“Yeah, and I’m curious if you have?” Kavanaugh replied. “I have no drinking problem,” Klobuchar said with a nervous laugh. “Nor do I,” he said.
After a brief recess, Kavanaugh apologized, but on Twitter and on TV, many observers were still processing the spectacle of the embattled judge asking a senior female senator point-blank if she’d ever blacked out.
Jennifer Rubin, a conservative commentator for the Washington Post and a prominent critic of President Trump and the GOP, wrote a column later in the evening calling the exchange the “most telling moment” of a hearing in which a yelling, angry Kavanaugh appeared unable or unwilling to get out of attack mode.
“It was a moment of singular cruelty and disrespect,” Rubin said. “One saw a flash in the exchange with Klobuchar the same sense of entitlement, cruelty and lack of simple decency that Christine Blasey Ford allegedly experienced way back when, the memory seared in her brain of two obnoxious teens laughing at her ordeal.” Noting Kavanaugh’s apology, Rubin wrote: “The damage was done. The spontaneous reaction was the real one.”
The exchange even seemed to rally hard-core Kavanaugh supporters to Klobuchar, like the blogger Erick Erickson, who has spent the last few weeks excoriating Democrats over their handling of the harassment allegations. “I disagree with her politics, but if more Senators behaved like Amy Klobuchar behaved today, we’d have a far more dignified process and Senate,” Erickson tweeted on Thursday night.
Democrats, meanwhile, were effusive in their praise and defense of Klobuchar. First District Rep. Tim Walz, the DFL candidate for governor, tweeted on Friday that Klobuchar has “been a beacon of truth, justice, and rationality. We are incredibly fortunate to have her representing us in the U.S. Senate.”
Klobuchar’s handling of the exchange and her questioning during the hearing also fueled more social media buzz for a presidential run — a long-rumored possibility for the senator — than she’s ever generated. The journalist Dan Rather tweeted “the Kavanaugh hearings further cemented my belief that Amy Klobuchar has a real chance at being the next president of the United States.”
In appearances on Friday, Klobuchar stopped short of spiking the football: on CBS “This Morning,” she said that she would have gotten thrown out of Kavanaugh’s courtroom in a trial if she behaved like he had. As the Judiciary Committee met on Friday to consider advancing Kavanaugh’s nomination, she was somewhat more indignant: “When I asked him about this to try to get to the facts… what did I get in response?” the senator asked. “A question of if I black out.” (Klobuchar did not comment for this story.)
Lying about his past?
As Klobuchar’s remarks indicate, though, Kavanaugh didn’t really answer the question. Now, her line of inquiry will likely be picked up by the FBI, which the Judiciary Committee asked to investigate Ford’s claims in a surprising move on Friday.
According to Paul Schiff Berman, a professor at George Washington University Law School who teaches civil procedure, the most important question in the Kavanaugh fight has become the degree to which he is “outright lying” about his past, including how much he drank in high school and college.
“What I think Sen. Klobuchar was going for was a line of questioning that would suggest, first of all, that he drank far more in high school and college than he has admitted,” he said, “and that drinking is likely to have impaired his memory such that incidents like the ones that have been alleged could certainly have occurred.”
Echoing what some have argued, Berman said that Kavanaugh’s surreal response revealed more about who he is than anything he might have said in response to Klobuchar’s question. “It was probably the most telling moment of the whole proceeding,” he said, “because in that moment, you saw the belligerence and the nastiness of a person who one could then easily imagine having participated in some of the incidents he’s accused of having committed.”
Josh Barro, a centrist pundit who writes for New York Magazine, has argued that Senate Democrats largely botched their questioning of Kavanaugh — save for Klobuchar. “Klobuchar has managed to become the one Dem on the judiciary committee who conservatives think was acting in good faith,” he tweeted, “while also getting a damaging answer out of Kavanaugh and acquitting herself well with Democrats, which is quite a feat.”