Republicans are forging ahead with plans for a Senate hearing they had hoped to avoid on a woman’s claims that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when were high schoolers, hoping to salvage the judge’s endangered Supreme Court nomination with a risky, nationally televised showdown between him and his accuser.
Republicans reversed course and agreed to the hearing in the face of growing demands by GOP senators to hear directly from Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, now a psychology professor in California. Their sworn testimony, certain to be conflicting and emotive, will offer a campaign-season test of the political potency of a #MeToo movement that has already toppled prominent men from entertainment, government and journalism.
“Now the whole nation’s trying to figure out something that’s not really evident,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. “It is a political dialogue on a very, very painful subject for a lot of people.” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said his panel would hold a hearing next Monday (Sept. 24) with both Kavanaugh and Ford “to provide ample transparency” and “give these recent allegations a full airing.”
Ford says that at a party when both were teenagers in the early 1980s, an intoxicated Kavanaugh trapped her in a bedroom, pinned her on a bed, tried to undress her and forced his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream. She said she got away when a companion of Kavanaugh’s jumped on him.
Kavanaugh, 53, has vehemently denied the accusation. He said in a statement Monday (Sept. 17) that he wanted to “refute this false allegation, from 36 years ago, and defend my integrity.” Shortly before Grassley’s announcement, the senator said there would be private, telephone interviews of Kavanaugh and Ford conducted by committee staffers. Democrats refused to participate, saying the seriousness of the charges merited a full FBI investigation.
Republicans had also displayed no willingness to delay a Judiciary panel vote that Grassley had planned for this Thursday (Sept. 20) to advance the nomination, setting the stage for full Senate confirmation of Kavanaugh by month’s end, in time for the new Supreme Court session. Thursday’s vote will not occur. President Donald Trump telegraphed earlier Monday that that schedule might slow. He told reporters at the White House: “If it takes a little delay, it will take a little delay.”
If the Judiciary committee’s timetable slips, it would become increasingly difficult for Republicans to schedule a vote before midterm elections on Nov. 6 elections, when congressional control will be at stake. With fragile GOP majorities of just 11-10 on the Judiciary committee and 51-49 in the full Senate, Republican leaders had little room for defectors without risking a humiliating defeat of Trump’s nominee to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Among the GOP defectors was Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Judiciary Committee member who has clashed bitterly with Trump and is retiring from the Senate. Flake said he told No. 2 Senate Republican leader John Cornyn of Texas on Sunday that “if we didn’t give her a chance to be heard, then I would vote no.” There was enormous pressure on GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two moderates who have yet to announce their positions on Kavanaugh and aren’t on the Judiciary Committee.
Collins said that in a telephone conversation with Kavanaugh on Friday (Sept. 14) he was “absolutely emphatic” that the assault didn’t occur. She said it would be “disqualifying” if Kavanaugh was lying. Murkowski said Ford’s story “must be taken seriously.” Neither Collins nor Murkowski faces re-election this fall. Some Democrats raised questions about whether Grassley’s planned hearings were sufficient.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said in a statement Monday night that she was disappointed the FBI and White House “are failing to take even the most basic steps to investigate this matter” and that the process was being rushed. She said President George H.W. Bush had asked the FBI to investigate Anita Hill’s allegations against Thomas.
Another Democrat on the panel, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, said staging the hearing without the FBI investigation would make it a “sham.” Underscoring the raw political divisions prompted by the Kavanaugh fight, Feinstein said she’d only learned of the hearing on Twitter.
The Justice Department said in a statement late Monday that the accusation against Kavanaugh “does not involve any potential federal crime.” It said the FBI had forwarded to the White House a letter, evidently from Ford, describing alleged misconduct in the 1980s by Kavanaugh. The statement seemed to suggest that the FBI was not currently investigating it.
Kavanaugh and Ford had each indicated earlier Monday a willingness to testify to the Judiciary committee. Debra S. Katz, Ford’s attorney, said on NBC’s Today that Ford was ready to testify publicly to the Judiciary panel, but she did not respond Monday evening to efforts to learn whether she would appear. Kavanaugh went to the White House on Monday, but Trump said he did not meet with his nominee. He declined to say whether Kavanaugh had offered to withdraw, dismissing the question as “ridiculous.”
Ford, now a psychology professor at California’s Palo Alto University, gave her description of her encounter with Kavanaugh to The Washington Post in an interview published Sunday. Kavanaugh is currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, widely viewed as the nation’s second-most-powerful court.
Until Monday, Trump had remained silent about the allegations against Kavanaugh. The president himself has faced accusations of affairs and unwanted advances — not to mention his taped comments about groping women that emerged shortly before he was elected in 2016.