On Thursday, the adolescent jottings of Brett M. Kavanaugh in his high school yearbook were being scrutinized under the searing lights of a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, where he sat accused of committing a drunken sexual assault when he was 17.
The faded references to heavy drinking and sexual pursuits had taken on evidentiary significance, and he was pressed by senators to acknowledge their meaning. Judge Kavanaugh instead offered benign alternative explanations — an apparent reference to throwing up from drinking could have referred to spicy foods upsetting his stomach, he said.
So it went for hours, as Judge Kavanaugh mounted an emotional defense against allegations of sexual misconduct and excessive drinking. It was the second time he had testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the first being earlier in September when he was asked mostly about his legal career.
The New York Times fact-checked his testimony, comparing his statements against the recollections of former classmates and acquaintances from his youth, as well as records from his time working in the administration of George W. Bush.
The combative nominee was compelled to answer questions he clearly found embarrassing or offensive. What emerges is the image of a skilled lawyer who, when pressed on difficult subjects, sometimes crafted responses that were misleading, disputed or off point. When asked about his alcohol consumption in high school, he said his classmates were “legal to drink” in their senior year, even though the legality of the drinking was not the issue (and, in fact, he could not legally drink because the age was raised to 21 before he even turned 18).
It was a performance that evolved with the increasingly fraught tenor of the proceedings. At his first hearing, Judge Kavanaugh, a Yale Law School graduate, fielded questions on policy and political work in the bland, studiously noncontroversial tradition of nominees to the high court. Still, even then some answers raised flags, as when he claimed not to know or suspect that internal Democratic documents about judicial nominations, shared with him when he worked in the Bush administration, had been stolen from Democrats’ computers.
But Thursday’s hearing sharpened the focus on a nominee in a way not seen since the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings of 1991. As in that earlier case, seemingly small details suddenly loomed large in importance.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, reminded Judge Kavanaugh that juries were routinely instructed that they can “disbelieve a witness if they find them to be false in one thing.”
“So the core of why we’re here today really is credibility,” he said.