Sexual assault accusation throws Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation process into disarray

Key Points
  • An on-the-record allegation of sexual assault published in The Washington Post on Sunday has threatened to crack the carefully crafted image of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and with it the narrow majority of senators expected to confirm his lifetime appointment to the nation's highest court.
  • Kavanaugh was widely seen as a shoo-in for the court, expected to collect votes from a unanimous bloc of the Senate's Republicans as well as a number of moderate Democrats.
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh answers questions during the second day of his Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill September 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. 
Win McNamee | Getty Images

An on-the-record allegation of sexual assault published in The Washington Post on Sunday has threatened to crack the carefully crafted image of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and with it the narrow majority of senators expected to confirm his lifetime appointment to the nation's highest court.

Kavanaugh, a veteran judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, was widely seen as a shoo-in for the court, expected to collect votes from a unanimous bloc of the Senate's Republicans as well as a number of moderate Democrats who voted for Trump's last nominee, Justice Neil Gorsuch.

But after Christine Blasey Ford, a professor in California, went public over the weekend with allegations that Kavanaugh drunkenly held her down, groped her and attempted to remove her clothing during a party in the early 1980s, Kavanaugh's chances for confirmation have been thrust into uncertainty.

Ford's attorney said on CNN Monday morning that her client is willing to testify to the Judiciary Committee ahead of the committee's vote on Kavanaugh's nomination scheduled for Thursday. All ten of the Democrats on the committee signed onto a statement Monday morning demanding a delay on the vote, and calling for an FBI investigation into Ford's accusation as well as Kavanaugh's "false and misleading committee testimony."

Republicans have responded to the accusation by criticizing what they say are Democrats' political motives. But the specter of public testimony concerning an allegation of sexual assault in the midst of the #MeToo movement's public reckoning over sexual misconduct by powerful men will haunt lawmakers who until now had faced few obstacles to securing the judge's confirmation.

Kavanaugh has flatly denied the allegation, and the White House has stood by its nominee. On Sunday, the White House reissued a statement from Kavanaugh in which he said that "I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation. I did not do this back in high school or at any time."

On Monday, Kavanaugh doubled down. In a statement released by the White House, he said, "This is a completely false allegation. I have never done anything like what the accuser describes — to her or to anyone. Because this never happened, I had no idea who was making this accusation until she identified herself yesterday. I am willing to talk to the Senate Judiciary Committee in any way the Committee deems appropriate to refute this false allegation, from 36 years ago, and defend my integrity."

Later Monday, a White House official told NBC News that Kavanaugh has said that he was not at the party where the alleged incident occurred. Kavanaugh gave the same account to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a Hatch aide told NBC News.

Mark Judge, a conservative writer who Ford said was present at the high school gathering in which the attempted rape occurred, has also denied that the incident took place. Judge called the allegation "just absolutely nuts" in an interview with The Weekly Standard that was published Friday, after the contours of the alleged incident were made public but before Ford came forward by name.

Nonetheless, at least three Republicans, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have called for a Thursday Judiciary Committee vote on his nomination to be delayed, the first major fracture in the party over the nominee. Flake is a member of the committee, and the other two senators are crucial to securing Kavanaugh's nomination.

"I've made it clear that I'm not comfortable moving ahead with the vote on Thursday if we have not heard her side of the story or explored this further," Flake told The Washington Post. Both Flake and Corker have announced that they are retiring from the Senate.

Pressure has also ramped up on three moderate Democrats — Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — who were thought to be possible "yes" votes on Kavanaugh's nomination.

Adding to the fission are statements from two female Republicans who Democrats have targeted since Kavanaugh's nomination was announced as possible "no" votes, including Murkowski.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Sunday night that the revelation caught her off guard, noting that "I don't know enough to create a judgment at this point." In a Monday tweet, Collins called on both Ford and Kavanaugh to testify to the Judiciary Committee.


Murkowski, who said Sunday that the Judiciary Committee may need to consider delaying its vote this week, told CNN that "if there is real substance to this, it demands a response."

What that response may look like is unclear, though all of the options are bad news for Republicans, who until the weekend had managed to successfully ward off Democratic opposition and calls for delay. Democrats have blasted the confirmation process since it started, accusing Republicans of withholding crucial information and documents about Kavanaugh's previous work. Feinstein and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have accused Kavanaugh of lying under oath to lawmakers during his confirmation hearings.

Biggest threat yet

But none of those accusations appeared to threaten Kavanaugh's nomination to the extent that Sunday's did.

Republican leadership has so far remained steadfast in pushing ahead with the nomination at a steady clip in order to secure Kavanaugh a spot on the court before the start of the Supreme Court term in October. Republicans are also looking to secure Kavanaugh's spot ahead of the November midterms, when voters will determine the partisan makeup of the Senate and possibly jeopardize Republicans' narrow majority.

The Judiciary Committee's chairman, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, is intent on keeping the nomination on schedule and accused Democrats Sunday night of seizing on the accusation for political purposes. A spokesperson for Grassley said in a statement Sunday that his office was working to set up phone calls with Kavanaugh and Ford to learn more about the accusation.

On Monday, Grassley said that Feinstein's office refused to assist in setting up the phone calls. In response, Feinstein's office pointed CNBC to a statement issued Sunday night in which the Feinstein said that phone calls "aren't the appropriate way to handle this."

"The standard procedure for updates to any nominee's background investigation file is to conduct separate follow-up calls with relevant parties," Grassley said in the Monday statement.

But that may not be enough to satisfy Republicans who have called for a delay.

Trump has not yet publicly addressed the allegation against his nominee. But White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters Monday morning that she had spoken with the president "at length" and said that Ford could testify to the Judiciary Committee as early as Tuesday.

"She should not be ignored or insulted. She should be heard," Conway said. Separately, Conway noted in a post on Twitter that, during the confirmation process, "hundreds of women" had spoken positively about Kavanaugh's character. "This matters," she wrote.

But Democrats said Monday, in a statement signed by all 10 members of the Judiciary Committee, that "staff-level examination of these allegations should not go forward until the FBI's career professionals with the requisite investigative expertise have completed their review."

"Senator Grassley must postpone the vote until, at a very minimum, these serious and credible allegations are thoroughly investigated," Schumer said in a statement Sunday. "For too long, when woman have made serious allegations of abuse, they have been ignored."

The last-minute accusation of sexual abuse has recalled the controversy over the confirmation of Clarence Thomas in 1991. Thomas' hearings had already been completed when a leak of an FBI interview surfaced in which Anita Hill, a professor who had previously worked for Thomas, accused him of unwanted sexual advances.

Anita Hill's lasting legacy

Hill was promptly called to testify before lawmakers, and her testimony — she said Thomas "told me graphically of his own sexual prowess" — has left a lasting mark on American politics. Thomas was confirmed by the Senate 52-48, which was the narrowest vote on a Supreme Court nomination in more than a century.

The following year, 1992, has been referred to as the "Year of the Woman" because of the election of a number of female senators that year, widely considered to be a reaction to public outcry over the all-male makeup of the Judiciary Committee at the time they questioned Hill. Critics have noted that the GOP majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee is made up entirely of men.

Thomas has always denied the accusations against him, and at the time referred to the public controversy surrounding Hill's claims as a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."

Joe Biden, the former vice president who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee during the Thomas confirmation, was accused at the time of failing to call forward three witnesses who would have bolstered Hill's claims, an accusation that has followed him throughout his political career. Biden has said recently that he owes Anita Hill an apology.

In a statement Monday, a Biden spokesperson told NBC News that "Biden believes Professor Ford deserves a fair and respectful hearing of her allegations, and that the Committee should undertake a thorough and nonpartisan effort to get to the truth, wherever it leads."

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