Republicans hardened their position and closed ranks Wednesday in the handling of sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, ramping up their rhetoric and unifying around the idea that his accuser should testify — publicly or privately — by Monday.
It’s a big political gamble. Republicans may be able to leverage their slim 51-seat Senate majority to quickly push ahead with Kavanaugh’s confirmation, despite Democrats’ objections and before any more public pressure has a chance to build.
But amid the #MeToo backlash over sexual misconduct, GOP leaders risk angering voters — particularly suburban women — if they seem to be dismissing the allegation of California professor Christine Blasey Ford or mistreating a woman who says she was a victim of attempted rape.
“There’s a real risk, it seems to me. It further inflames Democratic and independent women,” said David Brady, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank. “[Those groups] are the big danger in the midterms anyway. I’d be polling the [heck] out of this.”
President Trump raised doubts Wednesday about Ford’s story. Ford, a Palo Alto University psychology professor, says Kavanaugh pinned her down, groped her and covered her mouth to silence her when the two were high school students in the early 1980s. Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.
Trump said it's "very hard for me to imagine anything happened," calling the accusation “unfair.” Trump added he hoped to hear from Ford.
"I really would want to see what she has to say,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “If she shows up and makes a credible showing, that would be very interesting. If she doesn't show up, that would be very unfortunate."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) had some of the harshest words Wednesday. “This has been a drive-by shooting when it comes to Kavanaugh. I’ll listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close,” he told the Washington Post.
He and other Republicans say that if Ford does not share her story by Monday, senators should proceed to a vote on Kavanaugh next week.
Both Ford and Kavanaugh have expressed a willingness to testify. Without consulting Ford, the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled a hearing for Monday. But Ford’s attorney said late Tuesday that she would prefer that the FBI look into the matter first, and Democrats are backing her.
Senate Republicans have rejected the call for an FBI investigation. In a letter to Ford's attorney, Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said that “the FBI does not make a credibility assessment of any information it receives with respect to a nominee. Nor is it tasked with investigating a matter simply because the committee deems it important."
He said in the letter that Ford must submit her prepared testimony by Friday if she intends to participate, and Grassley said a decision on whether to cancel the meeting if she does not attend would likely be made at the last minute.
A key GOP voice in deciding Kavanaugh’s fate, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, on Wednesday joined fellow moderate Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in calling for Ford to testify, either privately or publicly, on Monday.
Previously the pair, along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), appeared to diverge from GOP leaders by calling for a delay in the Kavanaugh confirmation vote in order to hear from Ford. But now Flake and Collins seem satisfied with Grassley’s attempts to give Ford the opportunity to tell her story.
“I hope that Dr. Ford will reconsider and testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday,” Collins tweeted. “It is my understanding that the committee has offered to hold either a public or a private session, whichever would make her more comfortable.”
Abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America warned that if Collins backs Kavanaugh, she is no ally to women and shouldn’t rely on female supporters in her next election.
“If it’s truly Sen. Collins’ intention to side with Brett Kavanaugh over Dr. Blasey Ford, she will never again be able to claim the mantle of an ally to women or survivors, and that is not something that women will ever forget — not next week, not next month, and not in 2020 when she’s up for reelection,” NARAL President Ilyse Hogue said.
Trump repeated his assertion that the FBI does not investigate such allegations as part of the background check process and that it would be up to senators to request that it does so. “It would seem that the FBI really doesn’t do that,” Trump said.
Others familiar with the process said the White House could request further action by the FBI.
President George H.W. Bush ordered the FBI to look into the sexual harassment allegations brought against now-Justice Clarence Thomas by professor Anita Hill during his Supreme Court confirmation process.
Grassley said on Twitter on Wednesday that staff investigators are looking into the allegations and that “no other OUTSIDE investigation is necessary for the [committee] to do its investigation.”
The staff investigator title is a bit of a misnomer, according to Lisa Graves, former chief nominations counsel for Judiciary Committee Democrats. They are tasked with reading a candidate’s FBI file and summarizing it for senators, she said, and aren't required to have legal or investigative experience.
“Those are partisan investigators doing partisan work on behalf of their partisan boss,” Graves said. “It was always the FBI’s role to conduct interviews and do an investigation.”
Graves, who also vetted judicial candidates for the Justice Department for President Clinton, said it was “ridiculous” to say that the FBI can’t add to Kavanaugh’s background investigation, or that its authority doesn’t include investigating allegations made about a nominee. In the past, she said, senators were welcome to ask the FBI to provide more information about specific instances.
“I can't believe the claims that are being made,” she said.
An impartial FBI investigation could help clarify some of the conflicting stories circulating about what may have happened, Democrats say. Ford identified one person, Mark Judge, as witnessing the alleged assault, though Judge has said he has no recollection of it and does not want to testify about it.
Another risk for Republicans is that something that began as a fight over a Supreme Court seat will be drawn into the #MeToo movement.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said Tuesday that Ford “is under no obligation to participate in the Republican efforts to sweep this whole thing under the rug, to continue this nomination on the fast track and to participate in a smear campaign and basically a railroad job. This is what they did to Anita Hill.”
Hill, who testified before the Judiciary Committee in 1991 that Thomas had sexually harassed her, urged senators Wednesday to "push the pause button" on plans to hold a hearing next week. She said the FBI should be allowed to investigate.
Hill warned that senators should avoid a "sham" proceeding.
"The American public really is expecting something more," Hill said during an appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America." "They want to know that the Senate takes this seriously."