Who to believe: Ford or Kavanaugh?

Yesterday’s riveting testimony pitted Christine Blasey Ford’s “100%” certainty that it was Judge Brett Kavanaugh who sexually assaulted her 36 years ago versus his persistent denials. Who to believe in a hearing where no other testimony got scheduled? Ford said she felt “terrified” and was testifying only because she believed it was her “civic duty” to do so. Given her shaky voice and the frequency with which her raised eyebrows created wrinkles across her forehead, it’s easy to say, yes, she felt fear. Death threats and the memory of Anita Hill’s experience in testifying against Justice Clarence Thomas could be cause enough for ford to have felt fear yesterday. But in the moment, recounting the trauma of the attack was fully cause enough to show fear that came across as genuine and unrehearsed.

It’s harder to give credence to Kavanaugh’s “100” certainty, however. There is no lying muscle or facial expression that reveals dishonesty. Caught in a lie, Richard Nixon showed fear, Dwight Eisenhower sadness, Bernie Madoff contempt, and Lance Armstrong as well as Bill Clinton anger. Indignation is a frequent recourse for a liar, as in: how dare you question my character and veracity! Clarence Thomas raged against a “high-tech lynching” and Democratic senators were cowed. Yesterday, Kavanaugh (and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham) raged and again the Democratic senators on the judiciary committee didn’t meet fury with fury. For Kavanaugh, yesterday’s hearing constituted a “national disgrace” and Ford’s accusations and those of Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick were important only as part of a process that has destroyed “my good name.”

Kavanaugh choked back tears in recalling his daughter’s advice to pray on behalf of professor Ford. Was he momentarily sharing his daughter’s empathetic compassion for Ford? Or focused mostly on his own and his family’s pain because of public embarrassment?  Who knows for sure. But a nose wrinkled in disgust and a mouth taut with fury were far more common displays for Kavanaugh during the hearing than dwelling on an alleged incident that Ford says “drastically altered my life.”

Were the judge’s displays of disgust and anger genuine? Absolutely, but they were also a diversion. The key here emotionally might actually be happiness in Kavanaugh’s case. Ford recalled Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge both laughing uproariously as the future judge groped her and stifled her calls for help in a locked room at a suburban high school party. They were “having fun at my expense.” That account squares with Ramirez’s memory of a drunken Kavanaugh waving his penis in front of her face at Yale University as if a funny prank.

Memories are tricky and far from reliable but certain patterns are known. Intense experiences can create hyper attention to crucial details while other details blur. That fits Ford’s specificity in recounting the assault. Other truths regarding how memory work, in contrast, against Kavanaugh. Novelty and meaningfulness are central to what we recall.  Were sexual “pranks” a repeated and therefore not novel experience for Kavanaugh? Quite possibly. Did a drunken, laughing Kavanaugh see the assault as meaningful? Even now, it doesn’t seem so. Add Kavanaugh’s ambition to the mix and his unwillingness to answer specific questions squarely and his angry, disgusted denials look much self-serving than does Ford’s plaintive fear.

Senator Perdue Denies the Undeniable, Trump’s “Shithole” Comment

There’s no sure-fire way in which a person’s face reveals lying, but one can look for patterns. Consider three patterns from Sunday’s interview of Senator David Perdue (R-GA) by ABC’s “This Week” host, George Stephanopoulos:

  • First, count up all the nervous blinks by Senator Perdue when the interview starts and he knows he’s about to deny the undeniable: a minimum of 28 blinks within the first 50 seconds, or nearly two blinks per second.
  • Next, when Senator Perdue calls the reported use of the term “shithole countries” by Donald Trump a “gross misrepresentation” of what the president said in a White House meeting on immigration reform in reference to Africa, Haiti and El Salvador, what does he do? Why, the guy closes his eyes—a look that often conveys sadness in cases of dishonesty because people are disappointed in themselves for not telling the truth. Senator Perdue’s eyes also partially close when he insists later in the interview that Trump “did not use that word.”
  • Finally, when confronted with the reminder that Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had basically affirmed the incident at the White House, Senator Perdue’s mouth pulls wide with fear. That give-away happens not once, but actually four times during Senator Perdue’s interview, including when Stephanopolous asks: so “what did the President say?”

How bad were Senator Perdue’s odds in denying the undeniable? Pretty steep. Consider, all of the other disparaging comments President Trump has made about other places, from “Paris is no longer Paris” to calling Germany “a total mess” and of course his infamous remark suggesting Mexico is full of rapists. As to President Trump, he vaguely denied making the comment but admitted to using “tough language.” Coming from a germaphobe who won’t shake hands with people and seems to have a thing about orifices (remember his comment about Megyn Kelly and “blood coming out of her whatever”), hey, Senator Perdue you did the best you could. It’s tough first failing to recall what President Trump uttered in that meeting, only to then remember that it wasn’t supposedly memorable.