The Republican leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee said on Monday he would convene remarkable new public hearings in a week’s time after sexual assault allegations emerged against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Both Kavanaugh and the woman who has accused him of physical and sexual assault, Christine Blasey Ford, will testify before the panel, setting up a blockbuster event that could decide Kavanaugh’s fate.
The announcement, made under pressure from lawmakers to fully examine the new claims, will delay what had been a glide path toward confirmation for President Donald Trump’s nominee. The political stakes for the White House and members of Congress are enormous as the #MeToo movement galvanizes women ahead of key congressional elections in November.
Kavanaugh spent more than nine hours at the White House Monday, huddling behind closed doors with his confirmation team.
An official working closely with his team described Kavanaugh as “shaken, but focused,” with the conversation revolving around “defending his integrity.”
Whether Kavanaugh becomes the newest Supreme Court justice will depend largely on his and Ford’s performances in front of the Judiciary panel and a national television audience. Before the hearings were announced, both indicated they were willing to testify about the allegations.
“Judge Kavanaugh looks forward to a hearing where he can clear his name of this false allegation. He stands ready to testify tomorrow if the Senate is ready to hear him,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement Monday.
The dueling testimony could threaten Trump’s attempt to install a conservative in the place of frequent swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy, potentially altering the balance of the court for a generation.
At the White House, Trump said he’s open to a delay in order to keep the process going and eventually confirm Kavanaugh.
“Judge Kavanaugh is one of the finest people that I’ve ever known. He is an outstanding intellect and outstanding judge respected by everybody. Never had even a little blemish on his record,” Trump said. “If it takes a little delay, it’ll take a little delay.”
White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters Monday that Ford “should not be ignored or insulted; she should be heard.”
In a statement earlier on Monday, Kavanaugh called the allegation by Ford, who is a college professor, “completely false.”
“I have never done anything like what the accuser describes – to her or to anyone,” Kavanaugh said. “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.”
Kavanaugh’s statement came shortly after Ford said through her attorney that she would be willing to speak with Congress to tell her side of the story.
According to multiple sources, Kavanaugh also has hired Beth Wilkinson, of the law firm Wilkinson Walsh and Eskovitz, to be his attorney. Wilkinson has not returned calls from CNN seeking comment.
Flake, Collins praise decision
Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Jeff Flake suggested that the Monday hearing will be critical to determining whether they vote on the nomination, suggesting they may vote against Kavanaugh depending on how the high-stakes session goes.
“If you believe the charges are true, then you vote no,” said Flake, R-Arizona.
Asked how he’d be able to make a decision in a he-said, she-said situation: “I don’t know how you can ever be sure but it’s the best process we have.”
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, one of the key swing votes on the nomination, said she wanted both Kavanaugh and Ford to testify under oath before the Judiciary Committee.
“I’m pleased that the committee mark up for this week has been canceled and there will be a public hearing and both Judge Kavanaugh and Professor Ford will be testifying under oath, in a public hearing, next Monday. It’s exactly the outcome I’m hoped for and advocated for,” she said.
She said they will “assess the credibility” of the allegations at the hearing. “There are lots of questions that can be asked about details – and I think the hearing will be very helpful.”
Accuser’s decision to go public
Ford went public with her allegation in an article published by The Washington Post on Sunday. In the article, she alleged that at a party during their high school years, Kavanaugh pushed her into a bedroom along with his friend Mark Judge, attempted to remove her clothes and put his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream.
Judge denied the allegation in an interview with The Weekly Standard on Friday.
California Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo told CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront” on Monday that she met with Ford in July for “at least an hour and a half” about the allegations. At the end of their meeting, Eshoo said, Ford said she thought it would be “prudent that I take it to another level, and so I contacted Sen. Dianne Feinstein,” because of the senator’s rank on the Judiciary Committee.
After the meeting, Eshoo said Ford wrote and addressed a letter to Feinstein. “It was dated July 30 and my office made sure that that letter was hand-delivered the same day,” Eshoo said.
“I think that my constituent all along had a tug of war going on inside of her, understanding what privacy brought to her, but also the risks of moving over into the public square,” Eshoo said. “Because once you go public you are subjected to a great deal.”
Eshoo praised Ford and said her constituent has “exhibited an enormous amount of courage to do this.”
The congresswoman also defended Feinstein, who has been criticized for not releasing information about the allegation sooner, and said, “Sen. Feinstein did everything to protect the privacy of our mutual constituent.”
While Ford initially sought to keep her allegation confidential, she said she opted to go public once the allegation emerged in the public eye and reporters began pursuing her. Her attorney, Debra Katz, told CNN that Ford would be willing to testify before Congress and stood by her story in the face of expected push-back.
Katz described Ford’s recollection of the incident in stark terms, going as far as saying her client considered it an attempted rape.
“She believes that but for his inebriation and his inability to take her clothes off, he would have raped her,” Katz said.
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, Kevin Liptak, Phil Mattingly, Manu Raju, Jim Acosta, Jeremy Diamond and Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.