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Reporters Dig Into Justice Kavanaugh's Past, Allegations Of Misconduct Against Him

Judge Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in before testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Sept. 27, 2018.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Judge Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in before testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Sept. 27, 2018.

Several Democratic presidential candidates are calling for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh after The New York Times published an essay Sept. 14 describing alleged sexual misconduct that occurred during his college years at Yale.

New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, who wrote the essay, covered Kavanaugh's contentious 2018 confirmation hearings, in which Christine Blasey Ford alleged that he had sexually assaulted her at a house party when they were both teenagers. The FBI conducted an investigation into Kavanaugh's behavior, but it was restricted in terms of time and scope. The Senate ultimately voted 50-48 in favor of Kavanaugh's confirmation.

In their new book, The Education of Brett Kavanaugh, Pogrebin and Kelly detail what is already known about Kavanaugh — and extend the investigation into parts of his history and events alleged to have taken place. (Editor's note: Pogrebin and Kelly's reporting noted below includes a graphic description of alleged sexual misconduct.)

Pogrebin and Kelly research allegations by Deborah Ramirez, a Yale alumna who says that Kavanaugh put his penis in her face during a college party when they were both freshmen. They also raise allegations of a similar incident detailed by a male Yale classmate, though neither he nor the woman allegedly involved speaks publicly about it.

In response to the latest news, President Trump tweeted: "Brett Kavanaugh should start suing people for libel, or the Justice Department should come to his rescue. The lies being told about him are unbelievable. False Accusations without recrimination. When does it stop? They are trying to influence his opinions. Can't let that happen!"

Pogrebin, who was in Kavanaugh's class at Yale, says that Ramirez's account "never got its due" during the confirmation hearings because "the Republicans in charge of the process ... clearly had no interest in adding yet another story and another potential victim to the public dialogue and giving [Ramirez] the legitimacy of a public forum."

"Although [Ramirez] was made available to the Senate Judiciary Committee and then her lawyers ultimately gave the FBI a list of more than two dozen potential witnesses who could add credence to her story, ultimately the Judiciary Committee determined that her allegations were not relevant to the process," Pogrebin says.

Kelly grew up in Washington, D.C., and attended a girls high school in the same social network as Kavanaugh's high school. She notes that alcohol abuse was a common theme throughout their investigation of Kavanaugh.

"The drinking was something of a throughline," Kelly says. "Generally speaking, [Kavanaugh] was regarded as a pretty polite, responsible well-mannered young person. But when he was heavily drinking — and also at times when he was simply trying to impress his friends, like in the schoolyard — a different side of him came out."

Editor's note: The interview with Pogrebin and Kelly was recorded on Sept. 12.

Interview highlights

On Deborah Ramirez's allegations about Kavanaugh

Robin Pogrebin: Her allegations were that at a party freshman year in the freshman dorm on Old Campus, which is the quad where most freshmen live, she recalls being part of a drinking game with a rather small group of mostly guys with drinks being passed around, presumably beer, where she was continually and repeatedly targeted to drink. Kind of "Drink, drink, Debbie, drink," which she did to excess — and she had never had alcohol in any meaningful way before coming to Yale. And [she recalls] that at some point there was a kind of a fake penis in her face, she swatted it away and then subsequently there was a real penis thrust in her face and when she looked up she saw Brett Kavanaugh pulling up his pants and laughing and all of his friends, who were also in the drinking game, laughing as well, which she found incredibly humiliating and an experience that stayed with her.

On why Ramirez's allegations are relevant

Pogrebin: There are plenty of people who you talk to about the Ramirez allegations and to the extent that they are aware of them they kind of say, "What's the big deal?" And you can see from the outside how that perspective is conceivable. Basically, someone exposing himself to her at a drunken dorm party, you could dismiss that as just so much kind of drunken juvenile fun, boys being boys, if she were made of stronger stuff maybe she would have just said, "Get that out of my face!" and go on with her life.

What's important, and what my reporting really revealed, was that it's really essential to look at the background of a person like Deborah Ramirez and indeed anyone who comes into a place like Yale. That has made me sort of newly sensitive to this idea that not everyone comes into college equally equipped to navigate situations like that. She was raised in working-class Shelton, Conn. Her father was a cable splicer. She [had a] strict Catholic upbringing, did things by the book, academically distinguished, not at all experienced sexually or in terms of alcohol, and also somewhat at a disadvantage financially. Her family had to scrape together money for her to get through Yale. In addition to getting loans she worked in the college dining halls, she worked at college reunions cleaning up, she worked at Carvel in the summers. ... She also has Puerto Rican heritage and, as we know now, there is a lot more sensitivity to the experience of people of color. But at the time, there were jokes on campus that she experienced, of people saying "How do you get in here? Is it because you're Puerto Rican?" ... So she already felt kind of behind the eight ball at Yale, had a real deep sense of inadequacy that maybe she didn't belong there and wasn't gonna be able to hack it. So this experience with Kavanaugh only confirmed those insecurities, in a way that was formative.

On why Christine Blasey Ford came forward

Kate Kelly: I really think she was motivated by a sense of civic duty. Her comment to me was to the effect that, "Someone did something to me when I was my kid's age." She's a mother of two adolescent or teenage boys at this point. "And I thought the key decision-makers who were influencing the Supreme Court nomination and confirmation should know about it, and to not say anything would not be an OK thing to do in my book." That's a summation of what she said.

I think that coming forward occurred at great personal stress and, eventually, cost to her and her family. She lost her privacy. She lost her security for a period of time. She still receives death threats. And as recently as earlier this year [she] was having to stay in undisclosed locations because of death threats. So it was very difficult. I don't think she knew the half of what might happen when she was contemplating this, but at a very minimum she knew that her name would be in the public domain. And she was likely to be the subject of debate and that alone was very stressful for her. So I think it was a sense of civic duty. And I think although she is a Democrat and probably doesn't share most of Brett Kavanaugh's ideology, it really had to do with this sense of ethics and civic obligation.

For [Ramirez] the humiliation of it was almost as bad as just the sexual experience itself; that just having people laugh at her is really what actually stands out in her mind the most. Which is interesting because it dovetails so much with what Blasey Ford said about remembering the laughter in the room when when she was allegedly attacked.

On the similarities between Ramirez's account and Blasey Ford's testimony

Pogrebin: As I talk to [Ramirez], it really struck me, Terry, that she could not recall these events and recount them of 35 years ago without weeping. I've done enough of these #MeToo stories to see ... that these experiences stay with these women and continue to resonate no matter how buried, no matter whether they told people or not at the time. They don't go away, and that is clear with this experience that, for her, the humiliation of it was almost as bad as just the sexual experience itself; that just having people laugh at her is really what actually stands out in her mind the most. Which is interesting because it dovetails so much with what Blasey Ford said about remembering the laughter in the room when when she was allegedly attacked.

On how Kavanaugh's relationship to women has changed

Pogrebin: He grew up in this milieu that was largely male. He went to an all-male high school. He was very much associated with athletes. There was a currency that was kind of jocular and disparaging of women in a casual, perhaps only verbal, way sort of ironically, that Brett Kavanaugh was not like a ladies man. He kind of didn't really have the moves; he didn't get the girls. And that's kind of why he seems to have relied on alcohol conceivably to kind of make himself feel a little more socially relaxed, because he wasn't necessarily that adept. ...

That said, we did find after considerable digging that in the 36 years since these allegations he basically grew up. In our view, [he] became a better man either because he sort of consciously sought to reform these ways, or he just simply matured into a person who actually ended up promoting women in terms of his own practice, hiring female clerks to a notable degree and promoting women in the profession, and being a family man and having daughters of his own, whose basketball team he coaches. And actually being an individual who people speak highly of in terms of character and professional behavior on both sides of the aisle.

On the issue of memory and Kavanaugh's past

Kelly: It's an interesting prism through which to gauge these accounts, as well as Kavanaugh's denial. ... We had a challenge in assessing Kavanaugh's straightforwardness at the hearings because, after all, we're not inside of his head. We don't know what, if anything, he does remember, and if he's giving us the full picture of what's in his head. But without knowing that, it's very hard to say that he lied. He may be inaccurate about things because we have other eyewitnesses who remember it differently who are credible. He may be telling a sort of a shaded truth that's not a straightforward lie, but memory is tricky to discern if it's not your own.

On different attitudes regarding Kavanaugh's past behavior

Kelly: There is one school of thought that says if this type of behavior, which is to say sexual assault or sexually themed mistreatment of women, even just verbal sort of misogynistic commentary, if this is part of your character ever it's part of your character as an adult — and that a Supreme Court justice perhaps should be held to the very highest standard of conduct of any public officer in our country. So it's all relevant, doesn't matter when it happened.

There is another school of thought that deals with our mentality in this country around young people and our juvenile justice system. And in all 50 states, it varies a little bit state to state, but there are protections for juveniles who commit crimes and court proceedings, court documents, settlements — any sort of these legal processes that might surround a juvenile crime are kept confidential and the reason is we want to give young people a chance to reform themselves and learn from their ways and not be haunted by the mistakes of their past.

On what might have happened if Kavanaugh acknowledged wrongdoing during his confirmation hearings

Pogrebin: In the age of Trump — who is all about fighting back and kind of brooking no concessions ... it would have doomed his nomination. ...There was no way for Brett Kavanaugh to kind of be a human, flawed individual there, acknowledging the error of his ways and asking to be confirmed anyway. ...

Kelly: I think the outcomes here were very binary. I think either he was going to be named to the Supreme Court or he was potentially going to lose the job that he did have as well as his teaching jobs and his coaching responsibilities, because unfortunately what we're seeing now in our culture is sort of the accumulation of a bunch of somewhat toxic crosscurrents: the fighting instinct that Robin has talked about, the advent of social media and the sort of abuse that all sorts of people get on social media, the idea that your behavior has to be up to a certain level at all times — and that to be flawed is to be canceled. I think there was a whole accumulation of factors that made it difficult, if not impossible, for Kavanagh to say something to the effect of "If I ever hurt someone, I'm terribly sorry."

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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