Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court faced potentially damaging delay Sunday after a woman who has accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school publicly identified herself.
Her decision to step forward — confronting Kavanaugh with a named accuser — sharply changed the dynamics of the nomination. It set the stage for what could be a deeply bruising partisan battle, coming less than two months before the midterm election in which Republicans already fear they may suffer heavy losses, to a large extent because of opposition from female voters.
At least two Republican senators said Sunday that they wanted the allegation to be more thoroughly investigated before voting on Kavanaugh’s nomination — a significant setback for the Republican strategy of pushing President Trump's choice for the high court rapidly forward.
The accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, a psychologist and professor at Palo Alto University, identified herself in a Washington Post interview published Sunday — four days before the Senate Judiciary Committee was to vote on whether to endorse Kavanaugh’s lifetime appointment to the nation’s court, which would in turn pave the way for a vote by the full Senate.
Kavanaugh has denied the allegations, which came to public light last week.
Ford initially made her allegation in a letter delivered in July to Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. At the time, however, she insisted that she did not want to be identified. Ford also contacted the Post in July, the newspaper reported.
Feinstein did not tell other committee Democrats about the allegation until last week. She said she withheld the information out of respect for Ford’s desire to remain anonymous. Late last week, when the existence of the letter became public, Feinstein said she had referred it to the FBI.
On Sunday, Feinstein, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and other Democratic senators quickly called for the judiciary panel’s vote to be set aside and for the FBI to investigate the allegations.
A few hours later, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an influential member of the Judiciary Committee, issued a statement saying he was open to hearing directly from Ford and would “gladly listen to what she has to say.”
Graham said any testimony to the committee would have to take place “immediately so the process can continue as scheduled.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), also a member of the committee, told several news organizations that he thought the committee needed to hear from Ford before it could vote on the nomination. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, like Flake a prominent Republican critic of Trump who is retiring after this year, also called for a delay.
The Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), appeared determined — at least for now — to stick with the schedule and hold the vote Thursday. His spokesman, Taylor Foy, said Grassley was trying to set up “follow-up calls” in which committee staff could question Kavanaugh and Ford, describing that as routine practice when “updates are made to nominees’ background files.”
A full hearing on the new allegations would almost certainly cause some delay in the fast-track schedule that Republicans have adopted with an eye toward getting Kavanaugh confirmed before the midterm election. Graham’s support for a hearing could make it difficult for other Republicans to oppose the idea.
The developments threw into disarray Kavanaugh’s nomination, which could, if he’s confirmed, place Trump’s stamp on the nation’s highest court for a generation, after the ascent of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch last year.
Before Graham’s statement, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee had given no sign of yielding to demands for a delay, instead putting out a statement that defended the nomination and seemingly sought to impugn Democrats’ motives.
The White House declined to make any new statement in response to Ford’s allegation, referring reporters to the statement put out by committee Republicans.
Kavanaugh, 53, issued a brief statement last week when the allegations came to light, without the accuser’s name attached.
“I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation. I did not do this back in high school or at any time,” he said.
At about the same time, the White House released a testimonial letter from 65 women who knew Kavanaugh as a teenager saying that in their experience, he had always treated women with respect.
The dispute now creates a dilemma for the GOP leadership as well as Republicans facing election challenges in November. GOP loyalists will be loath to break with Trump on such a high-profile nomination, but are uneasily mindful of a changing political climate on matters of sexual misconduct.
Two Republican women, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have not yet announced how they would vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination. If both of them were to oppose it, the nomination would probably fail.
The two had already been under heavy pressure from supporters of Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Supporters of the decision fear Kavanaugh would seek to erode abortion rights.
Ford, providing the first public account of the alleged assault, told the Post that Kavanaugh and a friend, both of whom she described as drunk at the time, cornered her in a bedroom during a house party in Maryland in the early 1980s. She said Kavanaugh held her down on a bed, tried to pull off her bathing suit and the clothes she wore over it, and covered her mouth when she tried to scream.
She said she managed to break free when Kavanaugh’s friend fell or jumped on them and all three tumbled to the floor.
Ford — now a 51-year-old research psychologist and professor at Palo Alto University who also teaches at Stanford — said she feared for her life during the attack and was still traumatized by it decades later.
“I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” she told the Post.
According to the Post, Ford talked about the incident in 2012 when she was in couple’s therapy along with her husband. The paper reviewed the therapist’s notes, which do not mention Kavanaugh by name.
However, Ford described her assailants as students from an “elitist boys’ school” who went on to become prominent in Washington. Kavanaugh and the other male student, Mark Judge, were then students at the exclusive Georgetown Preparatory School. Judge has said he does not recall any such episode taking place. He has written about his experience with alcoholism and heavy drinking as a young man.
The accuser’s husband, Russell Ford, said his wife had mentioned Kavanaugh’s name around the time of the therapy, noting that he was a federal judge and even expressing her fears that he could someday be nominated to the high court.
With the #MeToo movement that has emerged over the last two years, allegations of misconduct, some of which fell far short of the kind of assault Ford has alleged, have derailed the careers of powerful men in Hollywood and in politics.
Notably, though, Trump himself has survived repeated accounts of sexual misbehavior, including the detailing by his former lawyer Michael Cohen of a hush-money payment to pornographic actress Stormy Daniels, and accusations of sexual misconduct from more than a dozen other women, some dating back decades.
Even the “Access Hollywood” tape, with its captured audio of Trump making a profane reference to grabbing women by the genitals without their consent, did not prevent him from winning the 2016 election.
Feinstein, in her statement, said that “from the outset, I have believed these allegations were extremely serious and bear heavily on Judge Kavanaugh’s character.”
“I support Mrs. Ford’s decision to share her story, and now that she has, it is in the hands of the FBI to conduct an investigation. This should happen before the Senate moves forward on this nominee,” Feinstein said.
In response to Ford’s coming forward, Schumer called on Grassley to put off the vote at least until the allegations, which he described as “serious and credible,” were investigated.
“For too long, when woman have made serious allegations of abuse, they have been ignored. That cannot happen in this case,” the New York Democrat said.
“Judge Kavanaugh’s credibility has already been seriously questioned .… and now his credibility is even more suspect,” Schumer said. “To railroad a vote now would be an insult to the women of America and the integrity of the Supreme Court.”
Republicans on the Judiciary Committee said the timing of the allegation was suspicious.
Foy, Grassley’s spokesman, said Sunday that it was "disturbing that these uncorroborated allegations from more than 35 years ago" would be put forward with the vote only days away.
"It raises a lot of questions about Democrats' tactics and motives," the statement said.
Among the Democrats joining in calls for a delay was Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who during confirmation hearings emerged as one of Kavanaugh’s most stringent questioners.
“Christine Blasey Ford courageously stepped forward to tell her story — it is a credible and serious allegation,” Harris tweeted. “A vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination must be delayed until there is a thorough investigation.”
Another notable Democrat urging that the vote be put off was Doug Jones, the Alabama Democrat whose special election win over Roy Moore marked another pivotal moment in the #MeToo saga. Moore was accused of sexually pursuing teenage girls while he was a prosecutor in his 30s.
“This was a very brave step to come forward,” Jones wrote on Twitter. “It is more important than ever to hit the pause button on Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote until we can fully investigate these serious and disturbing allegations.”
Jones added: “We cannot rush to move forward under this cloud.”
Staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.