By ALAN FRAM and LISA MASCARO , Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump showered sympathy Tuesday on Brett Kavanaugh, his embattled Supreme Court nominee who is accused of sexual assault, as Senate Republicans and Democrats fought determinedly over who should testify at a high-stakes hearing on the allegation just six weeks before major congressional elections.
Oddly, it remained unclear whether Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who set off the controversy over Trump’s nominee, would appear at Monday’s Judiciary Committee hearing.
Democrats said they wanted more time for the FBI to investigate — and more witnesses besides Kavanaugh and Ford, hoping to avoid what would turn into merely a “he said, she said” moment. Those witnesses would include Kavanaugh’s high school friend Mark Judge, who Ford said was in the room when she was assaulted, but Judge said no. Kavanaugh has denied Ford’s allegation, and Judge says he doesn’t remember any such incident.
The furious jockeying over the hearing underscored the political potency so close to an election that will decide control of both the House and Senate, not to mention the confirmation of a conservative justice likely to serve on the high court for decades.
Democrats see their arguments about treating women fairly as the best hope for either sinking the appellate judge’s nomination or, should Kavanaugh win confirmation, amplifying their appeals to female voters in November. Republicans have been careful to be seen as giving Ford a chance to be heard, mindful that outright dismissal of her accusation could hurt on Election Day.
Still, the risks of a public hearing starring the all-male lineup of Republicans on the committee could be high. Republicans said late Tuesday they were considering hiring outside attorneys, presumably including women, to question the witnesses.
Kavanaugh, 53, was at the White House for a second straight day, but again did not meet with Trump. The president said he was “totally supporting” Kavanaugh and rejected calls for the FBI to investigate the accusation.
Asked about the situation several times during the day, Trump did not mention Ford’s name but said he felt “terribly” for Kavanaugh, his wife “and for his beautiful young daughters.”
“I feel so badly for him that he’s going through this, to be honest with you, I feel so badly for him,” said Trump, who has himself faced numerous accusations of sexual harassment that he’s denied. “This is not a man that deserves this.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said an FBI investigation was essential. However, Trump rejected the idea of bringing in the FBI to reopen its background check of Kavanaugh, which would be likely to delay a confirmation vote until after the election. Republicans hope to have him confirmed by the Oct. 1 start of the next Supreme Court term.
Meanwhile, Kavanaugh has been calling Republican senators, and John Kennedy of Louisiana said the nominee was committed to moving forward.
“He’s not happy, he’s upset,” Kennedy said. “He said very clearly and unequivocally, This did not happen.”
Ford has said she was willing to testify. But panel chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said repeated efforts to reach her had failed, and Democrats said they didn’t know her plans. “So it kind of raises the question, do they want to come to the public hearing or not?” Grassley said on radio’s “Hugh Hewitt Show.”
Ford, now a California psychology professor, went public with her story Sunday, telling The Washington Post that Kavanaugh had forced himself on her in a bedroom at a party when he was 17 and she was 15, attempting to remove her clothes and clapping his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream. She says she escaped when Judge jumped on the bed.
But in a letter to the Judiciary panel, Judge said he did not remember the party or the claimed incident.
“More to the point, I never saw Brett act in the manner Dr. Ford describes,” his letter said.
No. 2 Senate Republican leader John Cornyn of Texas was one of the few Republicans who openly questioned Ford’s version of events.
“We just don’t know what happened 36 years ago,” he said. “There are gaps in her memory. She doesn’t know how she got there, when it was and so that would logically be something where she would get questions.”
Criticism like that fed a Democratic narrative that the GOP’s handling of Ford could jeopardize that party’s election prospects in the age of #MeToo, the response to sexual abuse that has torched the careers prominent men.
“Now this is really what #MeToo is all about, if you think about it,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, top Judiciary Committee Democrat. “That’s sort of the first thing that happens, it’s the woman’s fault. And it is not the woman’s fault.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Ford could testify privately or appear publicly before national television cameras. But he said pointedly, “Monday is her opportunity.” McConnell canceled the rest of this week’s Senate sessions, giving lawmakers a chance to avoid days of grilling from reporters.
He still expressed confidence that Kavanaugh would be confirmed, saying, “I’m not concerned about tanking the nomination.”
Democrats warned that anything less than a full investigation and fair hearing would haunt the GOP. They said the Republican hard line showed they’d learned nothing from the 1991 hearings when Anita Hill’s claims of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, were dismissed by the all-male Judiciary panel.
On today’s Judiciary Committee, all 11 Republicans are men while four of the 10 Democrats are women.
“Women are watching,” said Patty Murray, D-Wash., who came to the Senate in a 1992 election soon after the Hill episode.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said, “I just want to say to the men of this country, ‘Just shut up and step up.’ Do the right thing for a change.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, suggested that Ford’s attorney, Debra S. Katz, be allowed to question Kavanaugh at the hearing. And when asked during his radio interview if a female counsel might ask questions during the hearing, Grassley said, “You’re raising legitimate questions that are still in my mind.”
Efforts to reach Katz for comment were unsuccessful.
On Monday, Republicans abruptly agreed to hold a public hearing on Ford’s accusation under pressure from senators demanding that the nominee and his accuser give public, sworn testimony before any vote.
Ford is now a psychology professor at California’s Palo Alto University. Kavanaugh is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, widely viewed as the nation’s second-most-powerful court.
Kevin Freking, Mary Clare Jalonick, Juliet Linderman and Catherine Lucey contributed from Washington.