In a Friday morning tweet storm after days of restraint, President Trump intensified the controversy over his embattled Supreme Court nominee, Brett M. Kavanaugh, by expressing doubt about the woman accusing him of attempting to rape her when they were in high school.
Trump portrayed the allegations by Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychologist at Palo Alto University, as part of a partisan effort by Democrats to derail Kavanaugh’s confirmation. He repeated his declarations made throughout this week, including at a political rally in Las Vegas Thursday night, that his nominee is a good person of eminent standing.
“Judge Brett Kavanaugh is a fine man, with an impeccable reputation, who is under assault by radical left wing politicians who don’t want to know the answers, they just want to destroy and delay,” Trump said in the first of three tweets. “Facts don’t matter. I go through this with them every single day in D.C.”
In a second tweet, Trump questioned why Ford, who has said she was 15 at the time, didn’t file charges after the alleged incident in 1982. He echoed some allies in conservative legal circles who in recent days have attempted to sow doubts about her story.
“I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents,” Trump tweeted. “I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!”
His third tweet underlined that point: “The radical left lawyers want the FBI to get involved NOW. Why didn’t someone call the FBI 36 years ago?”
Just days after stating that Ford’s story should be heard, Trump reverted to the more recalcitrant, partisan stance for which he’s better known, blaming the controversy on his usual foils, the media and Democrats. But the political risk of his new tack was soon evident: Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of two undecided Republican moderates whose votes could decide Kavanaugh's fate, condemned Trump's tweets.
“I was appalled by the president’s tweet,” she said at an event in Maine, according to the Portland Press Herald.
“First of all, we know that allegations of sexual assault — I’m not saying that’s what happened in this case — but we know allegations of sexual assault are one of the most unreported crimes that exist. So I thought that the president’s tweet was completely inappropriate and wrong.”
Even as the #MeToo movement has elevated understanding of the frequency of sexual assault and harassment, and encouraged reporting, officials who help victims expressed concerns that Trump’s tweets would perpetuate stigmas that have long kept women from speaking up about such behavior.
The majority of women who experience assaults or harassment do not report the incidents and may wait years to tell even confidants about their experiences, said Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a nonprofit public health and social services organization.
“Whenever a victim-blaming message is put out there, it really affirms the rape myths that silence survivors of sexual assault. And it adds to misinformation and misunderstanding about the issues of sexual assault harassment and abuse,” Palumbo said.
Soon after Trump’s tweets, the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport was trending on Twitter as women posted their reasons for keeping silent after sexual assaults.
By going on the attack, the president was certain to unnerve other Republicans given the huge political stakes in this fight less than two months ahead of November’s midterm elections. Yet that shift tracks with his own longstanding denials of sexual abuse allegations against him from multiple women; he has called them liars, provoking one to pursue a defamation suit against him.
His reversal of strategy also laid bare divisions within the West Wing about how to handle the sensitive allegations, offering the latest example of the president following his own instincts over the advice and public comments of top aides.
Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, first said earlier in the week that Ford “should not be ignored and should not be insulted. She should be heard.” On Friday after appearing on CNN, where she took a harder line against Ford, she told reporters at the White House that she hadn’t had to advise the president not to attack Kavanaugh’s accuser.
“The president doesn’t need anybody to tell him,” she said. “He does the right thing.”
Trump sent his first tweet undercutting Ford and her allegation a minute later.
White House communications director Bill Shine, who lost his job as a top executive at Fox News over his handling of sexual misconduct allegations there, subsequently became a top advisor to Trump in July. Asked on Friday whether Trump's tweets mark a strategic shift, Shine in a text message said only that the White House “fully supports judge Kavanaugh.”
The White House would not address whether Trump’s tweets signaled that the administration was in effect questioning the credibility of any woman who reports a sexual assault years later. Instead, officials focused on the immediate fight with Senate Democrats over how to proceed toward a vote on Kavanaugh, fearful that if the story became one about the president battling Ford, Kavanaugh’s confirmation could be put in danger.
Separately in yet another tweet, Trump wrote that California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other Democrats had Ford’s initial letter alleging Kavanaugh’s attack “for months, only to release it with a bang after the hearings were OVER - done very purposefully to Obstruct & Resist & Delay.”
“Let her testify, or not, and TAKE THE VOTE!” he added.
Feinstein has said that she kept the allegation a secret at the request of Ford, who demanded privacy but then went public after reports of her accusation leaked.
Trump’s decision to lean in to this fight suggests an effort to sway public opinion ahead of a possible hearing on the accusation next week. Kavanaugh, who continues to flatly deny Ford’s allegations, has offered to appear again before the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday to answer questions about the matter.
Ford has signaled a willingness to testify before the same committee next week, although her attorneys have said that she will not be able to appear on Monday, the day initially proposed by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee chairman.
Negotiations between Ford’s attorney and the committee reached a fevered pitch late Friday.
Grassley scheduled a committee vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination for Monday, but said that he would cancel it if he heard from Ford by 10 p.m. Friday and that the committee would agree to a Wednesday hearing.
“We cannot continue to delay,” he said.
Then late Friday, Ford’s attorney asked for another day to reach a decision.
“The imposition of aggressive and artificial deadlines regarding the date and conditions of any hearing has created tremendous and unwarranted anxiety and stress on Dr. Ford,” she wrote in a letter to the committee. “Your cavalier treatment of a sexual assault survivor who has been doing her best to cooperate with the committee is completely inappropriate.”
Grassley has agreed to Ford’s demands to allow just one camera to be in the hearing room and to limit news media access, provide breaks during the testimony and keep Kavanaugh out of the room while Ford testifies.
But he balked at her demands that Kavanaugh testify first, that only senators — and not committee attorneys — ask questions and that subpoenas be issued to compel Mark Judge and other potential witnesses to testify.
Democrats accused Republicans of doing anything it took to get a conservative on the Supreme Court.
“Bullying a survivor of attempted rape in order to confirm a nominee — particularly at a time when she’s receiving death threats — is an extreme abuse of power,” said Feinstein, the top Democrat on the panel.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Friday promised conservative activists that Kavanaugh would still get confirmed.
"Don't get rattled by all of this. We're going to plow right through it and do our job," he told an audience of conservatives at the annual Values Voters Summit in Washington. "In the very near future, Judge Kavanaugh will be on the United States Supreme Court."
McConnell, who has made it a priority to hasten Senate confirmation of conservatives to the federal courts, also called the embattled nominee a "stunningly successful individual."
Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.