The national division over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination deepened dramatically at a tearful and turbulent Senate hearing, as Christine Blasey Ford said she was certain he had sexually assaulted her and Donald Trump’s candidate pronounced himself the victim of a “political hit”.
In a remarkably defiant appearance by a high court aspirant, Mr Kavanaugh, 53, accused Democrats of wilfully destroying his family and reputation, and declared that he would not be intimidated into withdrawing his name from consideration.
“This is a circus,” he told the Senate judiciary committee on Thursday, often fighting back sobs as he blamed the left for a “calculated and orchestrated” attack driven by factors ranging from anger over Mr Trump’s election to revenge on behalf of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“This grotesque and co-ordinated character assassination will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions from serving our country,” he said. “I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process . . . You may defeat me in the final vote, but you will never get me to quit, never.”
He testified after Ms Ford, a college professor making her first appearance on the national stage, told the panel she was “100 per cent” certain that Mr Kavanaugh had attacked her at an early 1980s high-school party in the Maryland suburbs while they were both teenagers.
Her voice frequently trembling, Ms Ford said Mr Kavanaugh shoved her on to a bed, jumped on her, ran his hands over her body and “grinded” against her while a male friend watched. Pressed for details, she said her clearest memory was “the uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense”.
“I believed he was going to rape me,” she told the committee. “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,” adding that she thought Mr Kavanaugh was “accidentally going to kill me”.
The political stakes were as high as they can get in Washington. With six weeks to the midterm elections, Republicans want to put Mr Kavanaugh on the bench as quickly as possible and scheduled a committee vote on his nomination for Friday. The party is concerned that if the Democrats win the Senate in November, they could block Mr Trump from putting conservative judges on the nine-member court.
During the almost nine-hour hearing, Democrats repeatedly pressed Mr Kavanaugh on whether he would be willing to call for an FBI investigation to clear his name. The judge responded that he would do whatever the committee wanted, without directly answering the question. Mr Kavanaugh suggested that the fact that several people whom Ms Ford said were at the party had denied any knowledge should be sufficient.
Dick Durbin, a senior Democrat, hammered Mr Kavanaugh with questions over the FBI issue, refusing to accept his answers. “If there’s no truth to her charges, the FBI investigation will show that. Are you afraid they might not show that?”
“Judge Kavanaugh, will you support an FBI investigation right now?” Mr Durbin continued, before adding, “You won’t answer.”
“Look senator,” Mr Kavanaugh replied, stumbling. “I‘ve said I wanted a hearing. I’ve said I welcomed a hearing. I’m innocent.”
Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina who is up for re-election in two years, responded with a fierce attack on his Democratic colleagues, pointing and shouting as his face turned red with anger.
“I would never do to them what you have done to this guy. This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” he said. “To my Republican colleagues, if you vote ‘No’ you are legitimising the most despicable thing that I have ever seen in politics.”
The mood when Ms Ford testified was more respectful, mainly because the Republicans relied on a female prosecutor from Arizona, Rachel Mitchell, to ask questions. She was recruited due to Republican concerns about the optics of having their 11 members, all male, grilling a woman making allegations of sexual abuse only weeks before a national election in the the #MeToo era.
But the decision appeared to backfire, even in the view of reliably conservative commentators who deemed the Arizona prosecutor unfocused. During the afternoon, the Republican senators abandoned their reliance on Ms Mitchell.
Mr Kavanaugh came out swinging — a tactic that some pundits said was because Mr Trump had been critical of his more muted performance in a television interview this week where he and his wife had refuted the allegations.
The president, who suggested that he could withdraw Mr Kavanaugh if he found Ms Ford credible, appeared to be pleased.
“Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him. His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting,” Mr Trump tweeted. “Democrats’ search and destroy strategy is disgraceful and this process has been a total sham and effort to delay, obstruct, and resist. The Senate must vote!”
The hearing was remarkable for Mr Kavanaugh’s willingness to hit back — shouting at senators and telling them to “let me finish”. When pressed on his drinking habits — because of suggestions that he was a heavy drinker and may not have remembered his actions — he frequently evaded the questions before turning the tables on his inquisitors, including Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Sheldon Whitehouse.
“Do you like beer, senator? What do you like to drink?” Mr Kavanaugh asked Mr Whitehouse.
When Ms Klobuchar asked whether he had ever blacked out from drinking, he asked what she drank, prompting her to respond: “I have no drinking problem”
“Nor do I,” Mr Kavanaugh quipped.
Democrats and Republicans also sparred over the way that the allegations had emerged, with the GOP members accusing Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee who received a letter with the claims, of keeping them under wraps. Ms Feinstein stressed that she had been asked to keep the allegations confidential.
“Somebody leaked it if it wasn’t you,” Republican John Cornyn of Texas interjected.
“I did not. I was asked to keep it confidential,” Ms Feinstein responded. “It is my understanding that her story had leaked before the letter. It did not leak from us.”
Ms Ford, who started her testimony by declaring that she was “terrified”, calmly rejected the suggestion that she had made the allegations for political reasons. Helped by the Democrats who were trying to bolster her case, she explained why she had not reported the alleged crime when it happened.
“I was too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone the details. I did not want to tell my parents that I, at age 15, was in a house without any parents present, drinking beer with boys,” Ms Ford said. “I convinced myself that because Brett did not rape me, I should just move on and just pretend that it didn’t happen.”
Mr Trump has publicly questioned why Ms Ford did not report the alleged crime years ago, suggesting she had come forward at the last minute with political motivations in an effort to block Mr Kavanaugh.
Mr Kavanaugh told the panel he did not doubt Ms Ford had been sexually assaulted, but repeated that it was not by him, saying a calendar he kept at the time suggested that he was probably not even in Washington at the time.
“I was not at the party described by Dr Ford,” Mr Kavanaugh said, adding that he had not sexually assaulted anyone, “not in high school, not in college, never”.
Ms Ford, who remained nervous throughout her appearance, said she had received death threats and been called “vile and hateful names” since her identity became known. But she insisted she had come forward of her own volition. “I am an independent person and I am no one’s pawn,” she stated.
Ms Ford is one of three women who have levelled claims of abuse against Mr Kavanaugh, the most recent alleging that she regularly saw him at Washington-area parties, drinking and accosting women during his high school years.
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