WASHINGTON — The congressional showdown taking shape between Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the woman who has accused him of sexual assault is a battle of optics as much as truth, and it comes at the height of campaign season.
At issue are logistics — Christine Blasey Ford's security, her questioners, the placement of reporters and who is allowed in the hearing room. The back-and-forth also is about how majority Republicans and Democrats answer women who allege assault and the men who deny the accusations in the #MeToo era.
Leading the way for the GOP is President Donald Trump, the former reality show star who on Friday attacked Ford's credibility and zeroes in on people who "make me look as bad as possible."
Snapshots of the Washington drama as early voting begins in some states ahead of the Nov. 6 elections:
ACCUSATION AND DENIAL
Kavanaugh was headed toward confirmation to the Supreme Court until Ford identified herself to The Washington Post, alleging that he steered her into a bedroom and tried to undress her when both were teenagers in suburban Maryland in the 1980s. He has staunchly denied her account.
Most everyone in Congress agreed at first that both should have a chance to tell their stories under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Republican-controlled panel set a hearing for Monday. Kavanaugh accepted, and has spent most of the week at the White House preparing. But Ford said Monday is impossible for her, offering instead to testify later in the week under certain conditions.
Their allies and opponents are issuing ferocious statements, further electrifying the election season atmosphere.
Both families — Kavanaugh's and Ford's — have said they're getting death threats.
Trump spent most of the week unusually restrained and heeding the tone set publicly by counselor Kellyanne Conway. Ford, Conway said, should not be ignored or insulted and should be heard. Trump likewise avoided casting doubt on her account, at one point even acknowledging the possibility that Ford could make a credible case if she testifies.
Then early Friday, Trump questioned Ford's credibility and challenged her to provide more evidence than the notes from a therapist reviewed by The Post.
He tweeted, "I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!"
He also repeated a question he asked on Fox News Thursday night in Las Vegas: "The radical left lawyers want the FBI to get involved NOW. Why didn't someone call the FBI 36 years ago?"
There could be many reasons for that, starting with the fact that it's not clear Ford's alleged account would have been a federal crime. Even now, no one is really asking for a criminal investigation. Ford and Democrats want the FBI to add to Kavanaugh's background check with more interviews about her allegation. Trump has refused to ask for that.
Also, the government's Bureau of Justice Statistics says a majority of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported to police. The percentage reporting in 2016 for rape or sexual assault was just 22.9 percent.
Trump's abrupt change of course put off at least one person he may need to confirm Kavanaugh in the Senate Republicans narrowly control, 51-49.
"I was appalled by the president's tweet," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "I'm not saying that's what happened in this case — but we know allegations of sexual assault are one of the most unreported crimes that exist. So I thought that the president's tweet was completely inappropriate and wrong."
Kavanaugh has said he wants to deny Ford's accusation in sworn testimony, and as soon as possible. As of Friday, he was scheduled to do so on Monday.
Ford says she wants to appear, but has issued a series of conditions that Conway said Friday sound more like demands. The committee is considering Ford's terms:
—Security, including by U.S. Capitol Police that could mirror Kavanaugh's.
—Reporters kept at a distance, as they are for Kavanaugh and most other high-profile hearings.
—Monday is too soon. She says she needs time to secure her home and family.
—She does not want Kavanaugh in the room when she testifies.
—She wants to the panel to subpoena Mark Judge, the other person Ford says was in the room when Kavanaugh allegedly attacked her. Judge has said he never saw Kavanaugh behave as Ford has described.
—Ford would prefer that senators, and not an outside counsel hired by Republicans, question her. Having an outside counsel would seem too much like a trial, her attorney told the committee.
THE TOUGHEST OPTICS
The hearing or hearings, if any, would have enormous stakes for Kavanaugh, Ford and their families.
But Republicans have the toughest challenge in the Department of How It Looks.
The GOP is defending House and Senate majorities in the election, and though Trump is not on the ballot Nov. 6, the contest is widely considered a referendum on his stewardship. The president has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women — all liars, he has said.
Inside the Senate, split 51-49, only six Republicans are women. On the Senate Judiciary Committee zero Republicans are women.
In contrast, four Democrats are women — some with ambitions to challenge Trump in 2020.
Haunting every politician is the memory of the 1991 confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, in which an all-male Senate panel hammered Anita Hill on her allegations of sexual harassment. Thomas heatedly denied the charge and was confirmed. Democrats were in charge, and the spectacle is widely regarded as a Senate embarrassment.
Democrats suggest now that tough treatment of Ford at the hands of Republicans would victimize her.
"The woman should be given the benefit of the doubt and not be, you know, abused again by the system," former Vice President Joe Biden told NBC's "Today" show in comments broadcast Friday. Biden, who chaired the Thomas hearing and is considering running for president, said he regrets the way Hill was treated.
THE GOP APPROACH
Senate Republicans agreed almost immediately after Ford's name became public that her story should be heard. They've offered to hear her in public or private. The Judiciary Committee offered to send its investigators out to talk privately with Ford at a place where she's comfortable.
But they're eager to avoid the spectacle of 11 Republican men cross-examining a woman who says she's been victimized by a man. Doing so would almost certainly evoke the panel's handing of Hill and potentially alienate suburban women voters who could decide the elections and control of the House and Senate.
Republicans are considering bringing in an outside counsel, possibly a woman, to question Ford.