Christine Blasey Ford told senators she was “100%” certain Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. Kavanaugh called the claim part of a “calculated and orchestrated political hit” designed to keep him off the Supreme Court.
And an extraordinary Senate Judiciary Committee hearing turned into a bitter, partisan brawl on national television by Thursday afternoon.
The fate of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee remained in the balance after the nearly nine-hour hearing. Republicans gathered privately Thursday night, ahead of Friday morning’s scheduled committee vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination. Majority Republicans also scheduled the full Senate to cast a first procedural vote Saturday, meaning if they have the votes, Kavanaugh could be confirmed early next week.
“In the end, there is likely to be as much doubt as certainty going out of this room today,” said Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, one of several closely watched swing votes.
Ford began the hearing by describing in graphic detail the 1982 night she said Kavanaugh assaulted her in an upstairs room at a party while Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge watched. “I believed he was going to rape me,” she said.
Hours later, a near-shouting Kavanaugh forcefully insisted it had never happened. “I am innocent,” he told the committee. Directing his anger at the panel’s Democrats, he said his confirmation process “has become a national disgrace.”
Each senator was allowed five minutes to question Ford and Kavanaugh, leading to a staccato back-and-forth between Democrats and Rachel Mitchell, the Arizona sex crimes prosecutor that Republicans hired to ask questions on their behalf.
But Republicans abandoned that approach during Kavanaugh’s testimony and the tone shifted drastically as Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas used their time to assail Democrats.
“Boy y’all want power. God I hope you never get it,” Graham said to the Democrats.
Turning to Kavanaugh, he said: “You’re looking for a fair process – you came to the wrong town at the wrong time, my friend.”
The GOP’s actions in Thursday’s hearing and afterward could have major implications in November’s midterm elections, with polls showing female voters abandoning the GOP. Recognizing the peril, four Republican governors – Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland, John Kasich of Ohio and Phil Scott of Vermont – called for a delay in the Senate’s votes on Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
In the White House, the political calculus was much different. As the hearing concluded, Trump tweeted praise for Kavanaugh and urged Senate Republicans to confirm him to the Supreme Court.
“Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him. His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting. 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!” Trump tweeted.
Kavanaugh denies assault allegations
Kavanaugh began his testimony by saying he and his family have been “totally and permanently destroyed” by the sexual assault allegations he faces.
He called the allegations a result of “pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election” and said his confirmation process has become a “circus.”
“I’ve never done this,” Kavanaugh said of Ford’s assault charge. “It’s not who I am. I am innocent.”
He said he bears Ford no ill will and teared up when recounting his 10-year-old daughter Liza, when saying her prayers, said “we should pray for the woman.”
“It’s a lot of wisdom from a 10-year-old,” Kavanaugh said.
Kavanaugh said he doesn’t question that Ford was sexually assaulted by some person, “but I’ve never done that to her or to anyone.”
“This confirmation process has become a national disgrace,” he said. “The Constitution gives the Senate an important role in the confirmation process. But you have replaced advise and consent with search and destroy.”
He told senators that to defeat his nomination, they’ll have to vote him down. “I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process,” Kavanaugh said.
Kavanaugh won’t ask for FBI probe
Democrats pressed Kavanaugh to support an FBI investigation into the allegations he faces – and a combative Kavanaugh refused to ask for one.
Durbin asked Kavanaugh to turn to the White House counsel Don McGahn.
“Ask him to suspend this hearing and nomination process until the FBI completes its investigation of the charges made by Dr. Ford and others,” Durbin said.
Grassley angrily interjected.
“Stop the clock,” he said. “This committee is running this hearing. Not the White House, not Don McGahn, not even you as the nominee.”
Leahy pressed Kavanaugh for answers on a character Judge, in a book he wrote, named “Bart O’Kavanaugh.”
“You’d have to ask him,” Kavanaugh said.
“Well, I agree with you there. That’s why I wish the chairman had him here, under oath,” Leahy responded.
Kavanaugh specifically addressed claims by friends and former classmates that he frequently drank in high school and college in his opening statement.
“I liked beer. I still like beer. But I did not drink beer to the point of blacking out, and I never sexually assaulted anyone,” he said. “There is a bright line between drinking beer, which I gladly do and I fully embrace, and sexually assaulting someone, which is a violent crime.”
Asked by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar whether he had ever drank so much he blacked out and couldn’t remember what happened, Kavanaugh said, “I don’t know, have you?” After a recess, Kavanaugh apologized for the remark.
Ford: Kavanaugh, friend were ‘having fun at my expense’
Kavanaugh’s denial came after a “terrified” Ford described in graphic detail how she says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party when the two were teenagers. She told senators her strongest memory of the night is Kavanaugh and his friend’s laughter as they were “having fun at my expense.”
Ford relived the night of a party when she was 15 and Kavanaugh was 17, telling senators she “believed he was going to rape me.”
The hearing featured jarring, rapid jumps between Ford’s memory being tested alternatively by Mitchell and Democrats.
When California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked if there is any chance she has mistakenly identified Kavanaugh, Ford said “absolutely not.”
“Very much so,” she told Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, of her certainty it was Kavanaugh.
“100%” it was Kavanuagh, she told Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois.
Inside the hearing, Mitchell was a shield for the committee’s 11 male Republican members, putting a female face on the detailed questions seeking inconsistencies in Ford’s account.
But outside the hearing, some Republicans who had handed off their opportunity to question Ford cast doubt on her testimony.
Graham said it is “very suspicious of how this all came out. All the media contacts, hiring a lawyer to take a polygraph makes it even more suspicious. This was meant to be anonymous.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told a reporter it was “it’s too early to say” if Ford is credible.
“I don’t think she’s uncredible. I think she an attractive, good witness,” he said. Asked what he meant, the senator said, “In other words, she’s pleasing.”
Ford describes her alleged assault
Ford began the hearing by describing the night she says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, when the two were at a house party in Maryland. She said she was pushed into a bedroom where Kavanaugh “began running his hands over my body and grinding into me.”
In the room, with Kavanaugh and Judge, she said, a drunk Kavanaugh “groped me and tried to take off my clothes.”
“I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from yelling,” she said. “This is what terrified me the most and had the most lasting impact on my life. It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.”
She also said she didn’t tell her parents what had happened immediately because she didn’t want to reveal that she was at a house party where alcohol was present and because Kavanaugh hadn’t raped her. She said she described the specific details for the first time in a May 2012 couples’ counseling session.
Ford told the committee that what happened with Kavanaugh has “haunted me episodically as an adult.”
Until July 2018, Ford said, she had never named Kavanaugh as her attacker outside of therapy. She said seeing Kavanaugh’s name on the short list of candidates for a Supreme Court appointment made her feel it was her “civic duty” to share what had happened.
“It was an extremely hard thing to do, but I felt that I couldn’t not do it,” she said.
She told the committee that she is “here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school.”
Kavanaugh will later attempt to convince majority Republicans on the committee to confirm him despite Ford’s allegations – and as other accusations of sexual misconduct emerge from Kavanaugh’s youth.
As she questioned Ford, Mitchell repeatedly used the word “correction” when going through a series of minor clarifications in Ford’s letters and comments.
Ford politely answered them – at times apologizing for conflicts such as saying she hadn’t again spoken to other people who were at the party where she says Kavanaugh assaulted her, and then following up that she did speak again to a woman who was there.
At one point, Mitchell spent several minutes asking Ford about her fear of flying and going through years of Ford’s work and personal travel, including annual trips to the East Coast to visit family and vacations in Hawaii and Costa Rica. Ford confidently joked that it was easier for her to fly when looking forward to a vacation.
Mitchell asked Ford both before and after a lunch break who paid for a polygraph that she took before going public with her allegation. After the lunch break, Ford attorney Debra Katz interjected and said: “Let me put an end to this misery, her lawyers have paid for her polygraph.”
The questions were similar to what a witness might face in a criminal trial, but the optics are unusual for a Senate hearing. In a moment that underscored how Republican senators sought to avoid being the ones to ask Ford pointed questions, at one point Ford looked to Grassley, and asked: “Can I address you directly?”
By passing their five minutes of questioning on to Mitchell, the all-male GOP members of the committee also passed on an opportunity to say anything publicly directly to Ford.
CNN’s Ariane de Vogue, Jeff Zeleny, Elizabeth Landers, Daniella Diaz, Dana Bash, Phil Mattingly, Annie Grayer, David Shortell, Mary Kay Mallonee, Ellie Kaufman, Geneva Sands, Sarah Mucha, David Siegel, Casey Riddle and Naome Seifu contributed to this report.