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Kavanaugh Lookahead


So Kavanaugh will testify this Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the allegation of sexual assault. His accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, will testify as well. Kavanaugh is likely to be asked some uncomfortable questions. And there is a certain irony here. Twenty years ago, Kavanaugh was an attorney on Ken Starr's team investigating Bill Clinton, and he was the one pushing for personal questions. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: On August 15, 1998, Brett Kavanaugh sent a memo to Ken Starr and the other lawyers on the team investigating President Bill Clinton. In it, Kavanaugh argued that when they questioned Clinton they needed to ask sexually explicit questions about details of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky in order to prove he lied in previous testimony. His proposed questions went into specific acts that no one wants to hear about on the radio.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You understand that it requires you to give the whole truth - that is, a complete answer to each question, sir.

BILL CLINTON: I will answer each question as accurately and fully as I can.

KEITH: Sol Wisenberg was deputy independent counsel and helped conduct the questioning. He didn't end up asking the explicit questions Kavanaugh proposed, but there were still uncomfortable ones.

SOL WISENBERG: There were people who said, you shouldn't be investigating this. There are people who said it's unseemly. But there's no question that they were relevant and proper in a legal sense.

KEITH: But Thursday's hearing isn't a legal proceeding; it's a political one. And Brett Kavanaugh, the man who proposed those questions for Clinton, will be in the hot seat answering questions about a sexual assault he's alleged to have committed 36 years ago. Kavanaugh denies it categorically. According to The Washington Post, Kavanaugh has been practicing his answers with White House aides, getting drilled with questions about drinking alcohol and sexual activity. And at times he has refused to answer, saying the questions were too personal. Adam Jentleson was a top Senate Democratic aide and now works for a legal nonprofit called Democracy Forward. He says that if Kavanaugh resists certain questions, Democrats on the judiciary committee could turn to the memo he wrote back in 1998.

ADAM JENTLESON: I think it's something they will hold in their back pocket if he tries to declare certain questions off-limits for the reason that they are too personal. It is probably not the thing they will lead out with, but I do think it's a compelling rebuttal to the effort by Kavanaugh to close off certain areas of questioning.

KEITH: Another thing Democrats may turn to - Kavanaugh's own statements in an interview yesterday with Martha MacCallum on Fox News. She asked him a question about disturbing alleged behavior at high school parties, and Kavanaugh volunteered this.


BRETT KAVANAUGH: We're talking about an allegation of sexual assault. I've never sexually assaulted anyone. I did not have sexual intercourse or anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter.

KEITH: By the time it's all over, the questions Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono from Hawaii asked at Kavanaugh's first hearing could seem quaint.


MAZIE HIRONO: Since you became a legal adult, have you ever made unwanted requests for sexual favors or committed any verbal or physical harassment or assault of a sexual nature?


KEITH: There are great political risks Thursday not just for Kavanaugh, whose confirmation is on the line, but for those questioning him, says Ron Bonjean, a Republican consultant who helped usher Justice Neil Gorsuch through the confirmation process. And he says there could be a lesson from 1998 and the questioning of Bill Clinton.

RON BONJEAN: At the time Bill Clinton was being asked those questions, the American voters were shaking their heads, saying, this doesn't matter at all. We'll have to see what the outcome is of this hearing, but the verdict is likely going to be that it's a media circus.

KEITH: How voters and senators react to the questions and answers on Thursday will determine whether Kavanaugh becomes a Supreme Court justice. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARALD KINDSETH'S "KEFI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.