Kavanaugh Versus His Accuser: A Showdown for the ‘Me Too’ Era
(Bloomberg) -- Republicans and Democrats face a week of uncertainty before the high-stakes Senate Judiciary Committee showdown between Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the woman who accuses him of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers.
The GOP still may get Kavanaugh confirmed, but at a huge risk. The image of 11 male Republicans grilling a woman who says she’s the victim of sexual assault may not be what the party wants shortly before a congressional election at the height of the "Me Too" movement.
Democrats’ last chance to derail a nominee who seemed to be nearing confirmation rests on a claim by California college professor Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh assaulted her 36 years ago. Four of the committee’s 10 Democrats are women, and party members hope the drama will boost their bid to win control of the House and Senate on Nov. 6.
Much will ride on how Kavanaugh and Ford perform in the witness chair at a hearing that Republicans have scheduled for Sept. 24. And Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said Tuesday that Ford has yet to tell the panel that she’ll appear.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who is not on the committee but was among the Republicans who pushed for a public hearing, said Monday she doesn’t yet know whom to believe.
"That’s why we need to have a public hearing so I can assess her credibility," Collins said. She said earlier said she wants to hear "testimony under oath with a lot of questions asked of both of them."
"If Judge Kavanaugh has lied about what happened, that would be disqualifying," Collins said.
"These are serious charges," said Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a GOP Judiciary Committee member. "And if they’re true, I think they’re disqualifying.” He said he told Republican leaders he would vote against confirmation unless the committee delayed its vote, originally planned for Thursday, to first hear from Kavanaugh and Ford.
In the 51-49 Senate, two Republican defections would sink Kavanaugh if Democrats all vote no. The nominee spent about nine hours at the White House on Monday.
Ford says that Kavanaugh was drunk at a Maryland house party in about 1982 and pinned her down on a bed, tried to remove her clothes and put his hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming. She said she was able to escape, but the Washington Post reported that she described the incident to a therapist in 2013 as a "rape attempt."
Kavanaugh, 53, has repeatedly denied Ford’s claim, and President Donald Trump defended his second high court choice Monday as one of "the finest people I’ve ever known."
"If it takes a little delay, it’ll take a little delay" to get him confirmed, the president said.
Kavanaugh said in a statement issued Monday by the White House, “This is a completely false allegation. I have never done anything like what the accuser describes -- to her or to anyone. Because this never happened, I had no idea who was making this accusation until she identified herself yesterday."
Grassley had hoped to avoid a public hearing, but ultimately bowed to pressure from Democrats and some Republicans to do more than have staff talk to Ford and Kavanaugh by phone. Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota said senators will have the opportunity to ask questions.
Grassley told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday that there would be only two witnesses, Kavanaugh and Ford, and that the hearing would be televised. No decision has been made about who would speak first, Grassley said.
Ford hasn’t responded to the committee, he said. Ford is “willing to do whatever it takes to get her story forth,” her attorney, Debra Katz, told NBC’s “Today” show on Monday.
“We have reached out to her in the last 36 hours three or four times by email and we’ve not heard from them but it kind of raises the question of do they want to come to the public hearing or not,” Grassley said.
Grassley said the committee will not hear public testimony from Kavanaugh classmate Mark Judge, who according to Ford was in the room during the alleged attack. Judge was quoted Friday by the Weekly Standard as saying no such incident ever occurred.
Republican Senator Richard Shelby said a committee vote on Kavanaugh could come by the end of next week, depending on what information comes out of the hearing.
“You have the man and the woman and then you go from there,” said Shelby of Alabama.
Some Democrats said they want an FBI investigation of Ford’s accusation before a hearing.
“I’d like to hear from the FBI if they can conduct a credible investigation of these claims in less than a week. I’d be very surprised if they can,” said Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware.
But the White House hasn’t asked the FBI for an investigation, a step that is required for the bureau to take further action, according to two people familiar with the matter. Grassley of Iowa said on the radio interview that there wouldn’t be any FBI probe of the allegations.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democratic Judiciary panel member, said that putting Ford before the committee "without a full, fair investigation would be a disservice to her, to the American people and to Judge Kavanaugh."
"As a prosecutor I would never put a witness on the stand, a crime survivor, without knowing in advance what other witnesses may say, what records and documents show," said Blumenthal, the former attorney general of Connecticut.
The hearing will be a milestone in the "Me Too" movement that seeks to hold people responsible for sexual abuse and harassment. It comes 27 years after the bruising confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexually harassing attorney Anita Hill when he was her supervisor at two federal agencies. Both testified publicly before the then all-male Judiciary Committee amid a public uproar, and Thomas was confirmed on a 52-48 vote.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the committee, referred to the Hill hearing, which began shortly after her allegations against Thomas became publicly known, in a statement on Monday night. "Republicans want to repeat past mistakes, rushing the process to hold a hearing," Feinstein said.
In 1991, however, the committee was controlled by Democrats.
Feinstein also called for the FBI to step in, saying in the statement, "We must not repeat the mistakes of the past and rush the process before we’re able to gather more information."
Pressure From Mueller
Trump already is under pressure from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and the prospect of Republicans losing control of the House or Senate, or both, in the election. The GOP has hoped to use Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a major campaign selling point.
The White House and GOP lawmakers accuse Democrats of waiting until late in the confirmation process to disclose the claim by Ford, who had sought anonymity for weeks before ultimately deciding to reveal her identity. Democrats have contended that the GOP is seeking to jam Kavanaugh’s nomination through the Senate without releasing thousands of records on his work as a lawyer in President George W. Bush’s White House.
The sex assault allegation threatens to harm the GOP’s already lackluster standing with women. Female voters preferred Democratic candidates over Republicans by 54 percent to 33 percent, while 62 percent of women disapproved of Trump’s job performance, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll in July.
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