Speaking to supporters in Mississippi, President Donald Trump made a series of false statements about Christine Blasey Ford’s sworn testimony about an alleged sexual assault.
Ford told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her when the two were in high school 36 years ago. In mocking Ford’s memory of the event, the president wrongly quoted her as saying, “I had one beer, that’s the only thing I remember.” But Ford provided many details of the alleged attack.
Specifically, Trump falsely claimed that, during her Sept. 27 testimony, Ford did not know what year the alleged attack occurred (she said the summer of 1982), whether the alleged attack happened upstairs or downstairs (she said in a bedroom upstairs) and the neighborhood where it occurred (she said in the Bethesda area).
Trump’s remarks came at a Make America Great Again rally in Southaven, Mississippi. The president accused the Democrats of “trying to destroy Judge Kavanaugh since the very first second he was announced,” and then he went on to make a series of false claims about Kavanaugh’s accuser.
Trump, Oct. 2: But I’ll have to tell you, the appointment of a Supreme Court justice — and I look at him, and I looked at the man that we appointed just before him, Justice Neil Gorsuch who was put through the paces, but nothing like what’s happening now. …
What he’s going through: 36 years ago, this happened. “I had one beer.” Right? “I had one beer.” “Well, you think it was…” “Nope, it was one beer.” “Oh, good. How did you get home?” “I don’t remember.” “How did you get there?” “I don’t remember.” “Where is the place?” “I don’t remember.” “How many years ago was it?” “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“What neighborhood was it in?” “I don’t know.” “Where’s the house?” “I don’t know.”
“Upstairs, downstairs, where was it?” “I don’t know. But I had one beer, that’s the only thing I remember.”
And a man’s life is in tatters. A man’s life is shattered. His wife is shattered. His daughters, who are beautiful, incredible young kids — they destroy people. They want to destroy people. These are really evil people.
There is a lot wrong here, so let’s go through Trump’s statements one by one.
Ford’s Recollection of the Alleged Assault
Trump: “Upstairs, downstairs, where was it?” “I don’t know.”
That’s false. Ford testified that the alleged assault happened in a bedroom upstairs, while she was on her way to the upstairs bathroom.
“Early in the evening, I went up a very narrow set of stairs leading from the living room to a second floor to use the restroom,” she told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “When I got to the top of the stairs, I was pushed from behind into a bedroom across from the bathroom. I couldn’t see who pushed me. Brett and Mark [Judge] came into the bedroom and locked the door behind them.”
Trump: “How many years ago was it?” “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
That’s false. As we have written before, Ford has said the alleged incident occurred in the summer of 1982. And that’s what she told Congress, too, under oath.
“In the summer of 1982, like most summers, I spent most every day at the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Maryland, swimming and practicing diving,” she testified. “One evening that summer, after a day of diving at the club, I attended a small gathering at a house in the Bethesda area.”
Trump: “What neighborhood was it in?” “I don’t know.” “Where’s the house?” “I don’t know.”
This is misleading. Ford did not provide the exact location, but she told the committee that the alleged assault happened at a home in the Bethesda area near the Columbia Country Club.
Trump: “But I had one beer, that’s the only thing I remember.”
Ford did say she had only one beer. But, as we have already begun to lay out, Ford remembered a lot of details about the alleged assault.
In addition to recalling what year the alleged attack occurred, where in the house it occurred and what town it occurred in, Ford gave specific details about the night of the alleged attack that Trump ignored.
She said who was at the party. “Brett Kavanaugh, Mark Judge, a boy named P.J., and one other boy whose name I cannot recall. I also remember my friend Leland attending,” Ford testified, referring to Patrick J. Smyth and Leland Ingham Keyser. All four people named by Ford say they do not recall being at the party, as we have written before. Ford addressed this in her testimony.
“I don’t expect that P.J. and Leland would remember this evening,” Ford said during her testimony. “It was a very unremarkable party. It was not one of their more notorious parties, because nothing remarkable happened to them that evening. They were downstairs. And Mr. Judge is a different story. I would expect that he would remember that this happened.”
Ford, of course, has accused Judge of participating in the attack — which he denies.
In her testimony, Ford said those at the party were drinking beer “in a small living room/family room-type area on the first floor of the house.” She said Kavanaugh and Judge “were visibly drunk.” After pushing her into a second-floor bedroom when she was on her way to the bathroom, Kavanaugh or Judge allegedly locked the door and turned up the music.
Ford, Sept. 27: I was pushed onto the bed, and Brett got on top of me. He began running his hands over my body and grinding into me. I yelled, hoping that someone downstairs might hear me, and I tried to get away from him, but his weight was heavy.
Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes. He had a hard time, because he was very inebriated, and because I was wearing a one-piece bathing suit underneath my clothing. I believed he was going to rape me.
I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from yelling. This is what terrified me the most, and has had the most lasting impact on my life. It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.
She recalled them “drunkenly laughing during the attack,” and that Judge “seemed ambivalent” about the incident, “at times urging Brett on and at times telling him to stop.”
She testified that she was able to escape the room when Judge jumped onto the bed while Kavanaugh was on top of her.
Sen. Dick Durbin asked how sure she was of the identity of her attacker. “Dr. Ford, with what degree of certainty do you believe Brett Kavanaugh assaulted you?” Durbin asked. She replied, “100 percent.” During his testimony, Kavanaugh was equally certain that the attack never occurred.
In addition to providing details about the night of the alleged attack, Ford testified that she ran into Judge “once at the Potomac Village Safeway after the time of the attack.”
Ford described Judge as an acquaintance, saying they “had previously been friendly at the times that we saw each other over the previous two years.” At the supermarket — “the one on the corner of Falls and River Road” — Ford recalled saying “hello” to him, and that Judge was “nervous” and he was “very uncomfortable saying ‘hello’ back.”
Sanders, Graham Claim Trump Was ‘Stating Facts’
In a press briefing on Oct. 3, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said that the president “was stating facts that Dr. Ford, herself, laid out in her testimony.” Sen. Lindsey Graham echoed those comments, saying during an interview that “everything he said was factual.”
Sanders was asked by a reporter: “He seemed to be, to the delight of the crowd there in Mississippi, mocking her repeatedly. Isn’t there something wrong with the president of the United States mocking somebody who says she was sexually assaulted?”
Sanders, Oct. 3: It seemed to me that he was stating facts that Dr. Ford, herself, laid out in her testimony. Once again, every single word that Judge Kavanaugh has said has been looked at, examined, picked apart by most of you in this room, but not — no one is looking at whether or not the accusations made are corroborated, whether or not there’s evidence to support them.
Every person that she named has come out and said either they didn’t recall it, or it didn’t happen, or they weren’t there. Every single bit of evidence and facts that we’ve seen in this moment have supported Judge Kavanaugh’s case. And the president is simply pointing out the facts of the matter. And that is what the Senate will have to use to determine whether or not they vote to support him or not.
Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, was interviewed on stage at The Atlantic Festival, an event hosted by The Atlantic magazine and The Aspen Institute, on Oct. 3. Graham said: “Everything he said was factual. He’s frustrated his nominee has been treated so badly.”
“President Trump went through a factual rendition that I didn’t particularly like and I would tell him, ‘Knock it off, you’re not helping.’ But it can be worse,” Graham said, going on to make references to sexual assault accusations against former President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
In the press briefing, Sanders later said again that “the president is simply stating the facts that she laid out in her own testimony and that the prosecutor laid out in her memo.” But Trump wasn’t “simply stating the facts” of Ford’s testimony, as we have explained.
Rachel Mitchell, a prosecutor with experience in sex crimes cases hired by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to question Ford during the hearing, wrote a Sept. 30 memo detailing some inconsistencies or gaps in Ford’s memory. But if the president was simply relaying Mitchell’s memo, he didn’t do so accurately.
For instance, Mitchell’s memo says Ford has given slightly different dates for when the attack happened, noting a July 6 text to the Washington Post from Ford said the attack was in the “mid 1980s” but Ford’s July 30 letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein said “early 80s.” In the Sept. 16 Washington Post article, Ford said it was the “summer of 1982.” Mitchell says in the memo that “it is common for victims to be uncertain about dates.” But she says, “Dr. Ford failed to explain how she was suddenly able to narrow the timeframe to a particular season and particular year.”
Ford gave a general time frame of the 1980s and then narrowed that to 1982. She didn’t say, “I don’t know.”
Trump also claimed that Ford didn’t know what neighborhood the house was in. But that goes beyond what Mitchell says in the memo.
“She does not remember in what house the assault allegedly took place or where that house was located with any specificity,” Mitchell wrote. But also says, “She told the Washington Post that the party took place near the Columbia Country Club.” She told the committee the same thing.
Mitchell said that this is one detail that “could help corroborate her account.” It would also help if Ford could recall how she got to and home from the party, Mitchell said.
The Power of Memory
During her testimony, Ford acknowledged, “I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t remember as much as I would like to.” But, she said, certain experiences from that night “have been seared into my memory, and have haunted me episodically as an adult.”
Ford — a research psychologist at Stanford University who has co-authored papers on brain science — gave the senators a lesson on the hippocampus, which is a critical part of the brain’s ability to process certain traumatic experiences into indelible memories.
Asked how she can be certain that Kavanaugh was her attacker, Ford said, “It’s — just basic memory functions. And also just the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain that, sort of, as you know, encodes — that neurotransmitter encodes memories into the hippocampus. And so, the trauma-related experience, then, is kind of locked there, whereas other details kind of drift.”
She said her most vivid memory of the event was “the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
Experts on sexual assault told us it is not unusual at all for victims to have clear memory of some details and no memory of others.
“Memory is not like a videotape that you can play back again,” said Dean G. Kilpatrick, director of the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina.
“People tend to remember things that are salient to them in some way,” Kilpatrick told us in a phone interview. “Things that are good or bad tend to stand out.”
With traumatic memories, he said, salient details tend to get locked in while other central details, like how Ford got to the house that night, would not be remembered.
“Gaps in Dr. Ford’s memory of that night is not unusual, based on what we know regarding memory and trauma,” said Kathryn Bell, an associate professor of psychology at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. “Memory decay associated with time passing can impact a person’s ability to recall certain details of an event. Furthermore, during a traumatic event, neurobiological changes can occur in response to stress, which can impact how memories of the event are consolidated. …
“During a traumatic event, attentional resources are directed towards the immediate threat — this can result in the person being able to vividly recall certain details of the event while being unable to recall other aspects of the event,” Bell told us via email. “In the trauma and memory literature, this is referred to as memory fragmentation. Those vivid traumatic memories encoded to long-term memory during the event may be recalled easily by trauma survivors for months or even years after the traumatic event occurred.”
In an article published in Scientific American on Sept. 27, psychologist Jim Hopper, an expert on traumatic memory and a teaching associate at Harvard Medical School wrote: “Incomplete memories of sexual assault, including those with huge gaps, are understandable – if we learn the basics of how memory works and we genuinely listen to survivors.”
“We remember what is significant to us,” Hopper told us in a phone interview. “It was significant to her that she had a hand over her mouth, that there was loud music and that they were laughing at her. These are all things that were important to her, and so were burned into her memory.”
Hopper said the brain is set up to prioritize memory in such ways. And so, he said, Ford remembers exiting the house, that they were not coming after her, and that she did not want to appear as if anything had happened to her, because those were significant to her.
“Those are just the kinds of things we’d expect to be significant,” he said.
There is also a well-established biological reason why she might not remember how she got home, Hopper said.
When people are faced with stress or fear, he said, at first the brain kicks into a super-encoding mode that allows the brain to burn in those significant details. But that state is not sustainable neurobiologically, and is followed, likely within 20 minutes after the traumatic event began, by a period of the brain being in a minimal-encoding mode, during which there is an extremely reduced ability to store any information. You would expect, he said, that just such a state would have hit Ford sometime shortly after the traumatic event. And so, he said, it is understandable that she would not recall how she got home.