Brett Kavanaugh’s embattled nomination for the Supreme Court faced further disarray Sunday night after an explosive new account emerged of alleged sexual misconduct when he was in college, putting the White House on the defensive and the judge’s confirmation in fresh doubt.
Scrambling to respond, the White House and Kavanaugh issued swift denials of the report. Some Republicans on Capitol Hill said they were shellshocked even as they blamed Democrats for what they described as a political takedown based on scurrilous allegations.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the panel would “attempt to evaluate these new claims” but did not publicly respond to a call by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, to immediately postpone confirmation proceedings until the FBI could investigate.
The new allegations, reported by the New Yorker, date back to Kavanaugh’s freshman year at Yale University, when a classmate named Deborah Ramirez says Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at close range at a drunken dormitory party, forcing her to bat him away.
The White House quickly distributed a vehement denial from Kavanaugh, who last week strongly denied a claim by Christine Blasey Ford, a California professor, that he had sexually assaulted her when they were high school students in Maryland in the early 1980s.
“This alleged event from 35 years ago did not happen. The people who knew me then know that this did not happen, and have said so. This is a smear, plain and simple,” Kavanaugh said of Ramirez’s account, adding that he would defend himself when he and Ford testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing scheduled for Thursday.
In a separate statement, a White House spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, denounced the latest allegation as a Democratic-inspired effort to “tear down a good man” and said the White House “stands firmly” behind the increasingly controversial nomination.
The claims of abuse have turned Kavanaugh’s once near-certain confirmation into a fierce partisan battle, one of the most consequential such clashes in a generation. It has cast a shadow over the November midterm election, jeopardized President Trump’s vow to cement conservative control of the Supreme Court and added more fuel to the cultural reckoning that is the #MeToo movement.
The sense of chaos deepened Sunday when Michael Avenatti, the California lawyer who represents porn actress Stormy Daniels in her lawsuit against President Trump, wrote the Senate committee that he was “aware of significant evidence” of house parties in the early 1980s that Kavanaugh attended where women were “targeted … with alcohol/drugs” and subsequently raped. He offered no evidence.
Feinstein urged the FBI to reopen its investigation and “gather all the facts, interview all the relevant witnesses and ensure the committee receives a full and impartial report.” Several Democrats called on Kavanaugh to withdraw his name from consideration.
Kavanaugh’s fate in the closely divided Senate is almost certain to rest with three moderate Republicans: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Jeff Flake of Arizona, none of whom weighed in publicly Sunday night. If two of them defect, his confirmation is probably doomed.
Some Senate Republicans said privately that they were stunned by the allegations and the worrying turn the confirmation battle has taken. Grassley complained in a statement that neither Ramirez nor her legal representative had contacted his office, but it wasn’t clear if Republicans on the committee knew about the allegations before Sunday.
The latest controversy erupted only hours after Ford agreed to testify to the Judiciary Committee at 10 a.m. Thursday about her claim that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a drunken party when they were teenagers, the charge that has roiled Washington for a week.
The New Yorker article, carrying the bylines of prize-winning investigative reporters Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer, did not name or cite eyewitnesses Ramirez said were present at the Yale party.
Ramirez acknowledged that her own recollections were faulty because she was highly intoxicated during the party. She said she remembered having a penis thrust in her face, seeing Kavanaugh pulling up his pants immediately afterward, and hearing another student shout out what had just happened, calling Kavanaugh by his full name.
Her allegations, if borne out, potentially could carry heavier legal ramifications than the assault described by Ford.
During his Senate confirmation hearings, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) asked Kavanaugh under oath — her usual practice with judicial nominees — whether he had ever committed sexual assault as a legal adult, and he denied it. Kavanaugh was over 18 when he was at Yale.
Earlier Sunday, Ford’s attorneys, after a lengthy phone call with committee staffers, said she would testify to the panel ahead of Kavanaugh — not after, as she had sought — to present their opposing memories of a drunken party more than three decades ago where she says she was nearly raped.
“We’ve made important progress,” Ford’s attorneys Debra S. Katz, Lisa J. Banks and Michael R. Bromwich said in a statement. “Dr. Ford believes it is important for senators to hear directly from her about the sexual assault committed against her. She has agreed to move forward.”
Depending how the confrontation plays out, the Senate showdown could provide the capstone to a painful political drama that has riveted Washington and has threatened to derail Kavanaugh’s expected confirmation to the nation’s highest court.
It still wasn’t clear Sunday who will ask the questions after Ford, a 51-year-old professor at Palo Alto University, takes the oath.
Republicans reportedly want to use an outside female counsel to question Ford and Kavanaugh. All 11 Republicans on the committee are men, and they are anxious to avoid grilling a woman claiming sexual abuse on live TV in the #MeToo era. They also could use staff attorneys, rather than ask the questions themselves.
“We were told no decision has been made on this important issue, even though various senators have been dismissive of her account and should have to shoulder their responsibility to ask her questions,” Ford’s lawyers said.
Ford’s lawyers reportedly have pushed the committee to call other witnesses, including a former FBI agent who conducted a polygraph of Ford, and trauma experts who could testify to her long delay in coming forward.
The committee has decided it will not subpoena Kavanaugh’s classmate, Mark Judge, who Ford has said was in the room during the alleged assault. Judge has said he does not recall the incident.
Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asserted the panel’s control over the proceedings, saying only its members would decide who to put on the stand, and who would question them.
“The committee determines which witnesses to call, how many witnesses to call, in what order to call them, and who will question them,” Grassley wrote to Ford’s legal team. “These are non-negotiable.”
The White House is wary about Ford’s testimony, nervous not only that she could damage Kavanaugh’s chances for confirmation in the 51-49 Senate, but also that her account could inspire more women to vote against Republican candidates Nov. 6.
For Republicans, the questioning of Ford will need to tread a fine line between defending Kavanaugh — who has strongly denied the allegation — and starting a spectacle reminiscent of the demeaning verbal attacks 27 years ago, in the same committee, against Anita Hill.
Clarence Thomas was confirmed for the Supreme Court despite Hill’s claims of sexual harassment.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) suggested Sunday that Ford could say little to sway him. Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” he promised a fair hearing but said that “unless there’s something more” to support her accusation, he’s not going to withdraw his support for Kavanaugh.
“What am I supposed to do, go and ruin this guy’s life based on an accusation?” he asked. “I don’t know when it happened, I don’t know where it happened, and everybody named in regard to being there said it didn’t happen. I’m just being honest: Unless there’s something more, no, I’m not going to ruin Judge Kavanaugh’s life over this.”
By contrast, Hirono, the Hawaii Democrat who has emerged as one of Ford’s strongest backers, declared: “I believe her.”
“I put his denial in the context of everything that I know about him in terms of how he approaches his cases,” Hirono said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “He’s very outcome-driven; he has a very ideological agenda.”
Democratic leaders renewed their demand for an FBI investigation of Ford’s claims, contending it could be carried out quickly. Republicans have generally backed the White House in saying that reopening an FBI background check on Kavanaugh would be pointless.
“Their [the FBI’s] role in this case is not to determine who is telling the truth,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” describing that as the task of the Judiciary Committee.
“I hope that we will get to the truth,” he said.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said on ABC’s “This Week” that he did not feel Ford had been treated well, and that he believed some Republican lawmakers “feel uneasy with the way this has been handled.”
The unexpected blowup over a nomination that had been expected to sail through the Senate has also posed a challenge for politically ambitious women in the Trump administration, including Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations.
Interviewed on CNN, Haley was careful not to criticize Trump or fellow Republicans, but also said Ford should have her say before the committee.
“What I have said very clearly is: ‘Every accuser always deserves the right to be heard,’” she said. “But at the same time, I think the accused deserves the right to be heard. … The Senate has a huge responsibility here.”
Staff writers Jennifer Haberkorn in Washington and Mark Z. Barabak in Berkeley contributed to this report.