By LISA MASCARO, ALAN FRAM and LAURIE KELLMAN , Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — In a clash along a polarized nation’s political and cultural fault lines, the Senate Judiciary Committee began its historic hearing Thursday in which Brett Kavanaugh hoped to salvage his Supreme Court nomination by fending off allegations by Christine Blasey Ford that he’d molested her when both were in high school.
Ford sat erect at the witness table erect, shifting her gaze between the senators and her notes as senators delivered opening remarks. Her voice quavered and she choked back tears as she told her story.
Before she began, committee chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa defended the Republicans’ handling of the confirmation proceedings so far. He also apologized for the harsh treatment — which has included death threats — that both Ford and Kavanaugh have endured.
The committee’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California, told Ford, “I am very grateful to you for your strength and your bravery for coming forward. I know it’s hard.” She criticized Republicans who have rejected Democratic demands to slow Kavanaugh’s confirmation process and let the FBI investigate all the allegations, saying, “What I don’t understand is the rush to judgment.”
Kavanaugh and Ford were the only witnesses invited to testify before the panel of 11 Republicans — all men — and 10 Democrats. But the conservative jurist is facing allegations of sexual misconduct from other women as well, forcing Republican leaders to struggle to keep support for him from eroding.
Grassley complained that lawyers for other accusers have not provided information to his panel and said, “The committee can’t do an investigation if attorneys are stonewalling.”
The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, expressed empathy for what Ford says she’s suffered, telling her, “I know this wasn’t easy for you.” She also aimed a barb at Republicans who have ignored Democrats demands to slow Kavanaugh’s confirmation process and let the FBI investigate all the allegations, saying, “What I don’t understand is the rush to judgment.”
The committee was to hear first from Ford, a California psychology professor who accuses him of attempting to rape her when they were teens.
Republicans have derided Ford’s allegation as part of a smear campaign and a Democratic plot to sink Kavanaugh’s nomination. But after more allegations have emerged, some GOP senators have allowed that much is riding on his performance. Even President Donald Trump, who nominated Kavanaugh and fiercely defends him, said he was “open to changing my mind.”
“I want to watch, I want to see,” he said at a news conference Wednesday in New York.
Kavanaugh, a federal appeals court judge who has long been eyed for the Supreme Court, has repeatedly denied all the allegations, saying he’d never heard of the latest accuser and calling her accusations “ridiculous and from the Twilight Zone.”
His teetering grasp on winning confirmation was evident when Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, expressed concern, in a private meeting with senators Wednesday, about the third accuser, according to a person with knowledge of the gathering. Republicans control the Senate 51-49 and can lose only one vote for Kavanaugh to prevail if all Democrats vote “no.” Collins is among the few senators who’ve not made clear how they’ll vote.
Collins walked into that meeting carrying a copy of Julie Swetnick’s signed declaration, which included new accusations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh and his high school friend Mark Judge.
Collins said senators should hear from Judge. After being told Judge has said he doesn’t want to appear before the committee, Collins reminded her colleagues that the Senate has subpoena power, according to a person who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The hearing was the first time the country saw the 51-year-old Ford beyond the grainy photo that has been flashed on television in the 10 days since she came forward with her contention.
“It is not my responsibility to determine whether Mr. Kavanaugh deserves to sit on the Supreme Court,” she was to tell the senators. “My responsibility is to tell the truth.”
Republicans are pushing to seat Kavanaugh before the November midterms, when Senate control could fall to the Democrats and a replacement Trump nominee could have even greater difficulty. Kavanaugh’s ascendance to the high court could help lock in a conservative majority for a generation, shaping dozens of rulings on abortion, regulation, the environment and more.
Republicans also risk rejection by female voters in November if they are seen as not fully respecting women and their allegations.
In a sworn statement, Swetnick said she witnessed Kavanaugh “consistently engage in excessive drinking and inappropriate contact of a sexual nature with women in the early 1980s.” Her attorney, Michael Avenatti, who also represents a porn actress who is suing Trump, provided her sworn declaration to the Judiciary panel.
Meanwhile, the lawyer for Deborah Ramirez, who says Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party when they attended Yale University, raised her profile in a round of television interviews.
Moments before committee chairman Grassley gaveled his panel into session, Ramirez tweeted her support for Ford: “They want us to feel alone and isolated but I’m there wrapping my arms around you and I hope you feel the people of this nation wrapping their arms around all of us.”
Republicans largely expressed confidence in Kavanaugh, emerging from a closed-door lunch with Vice President Mike Pence Wednesday to say the nominee remained on track for confirmation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said all week that Republicans will turn to a committee vote on Kavanaugh after the hearing. They hope for a roll call by the full Senate early next week with the aim of getting him on the court as its new term begins.
Yet Collins’ unease was not the only suggestions of creeping doubt among Republicans. Asked whether there were signs of Republicans wavering in their support of Kavanaugh in their lunch, Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Republican, paused briefly before saying “no.”
In the hearing, Democrats planned to ask Kavanaugh if he’d be willing to undergo FBI questioning about the various claims — a request Republicans oppose — and press him about his drinking and behavior as a teenager.
Republicans have hired an outside attorney, Phoenix prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, to handle much of their questioning. Thus, they will avoid having their all-male contingent interrogating Ford about the details of what she describes as a harrowing assault.
Democratic questioners included two senators widely seen as potential presidential candidates in 2020: Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who aggressively challenged Kavanaugh during the judge’s earlier confirmation hearing.
Ford told the committee that, one night in the summer of 1982, a drunken Kavanaugh forced her down on a bed, “groped me and tried to take off my clothes,” then clamped his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream before she was able to escape.
“I believed he was going to rape me,” she will say, according to her prepared testimony.
Kavanaugh is being challenged on multiple fronts by his accusers, former classmates and college friends. They say the good-guy image he projects in public bears little relation to the hard-partying behavior they witnessed when he was young.
In his prepared testimony, the 53-year-old appellate judge acknowledges drinking in high school with his friends, but says he’s never done anything “remotely resembling” what Ford describes. He said he has never had a “sexual or physical encounter of any kind” with her.
He also provided the committee with detailed calendar pages listing in green-and-white squares the activities that filled his summer of 1982 when he was 17 years old — exams, movies, sports and plenty of parties. That’s the year when Ford says she believes the assault occurred.
Nothing on the calendar appears to refer to her.
Ford released sworn statements from people who said she had told them about the assault in later years.
Late Wednesday, the committee released a flurry of other documents of unclear significance.
Transcripts of private interviews with committee investigators show they asked Kavanaugh about two previously undisclosed accusations received by Senate offices. One came in an anonymous letter sent to the office of Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., describing an incident in a bar in 1998, when Kavanaugh was working for the independent counsel investigating President Bill Clinton. The other accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in college. Kavanaugh denied them both.
The committee also released a summary of its work that noted its staff had spoken to two different men who believe they “had the encounter” with Ford, rather than Kavanaugh. The committee notes do not detail what came of those conversations.
Activity on Capitol Hill is likely to grind to a halt during the proceedings, with lawmakers glued to their televisions during what is widely seen as a sequel to the politically explosive hearings of 1991 with Anita Hill, who accused now-Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Thomas denied Hill’s accusation.