By Lawrence Hurley, Andrew Chung and Amanda Becker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Fighting to salvage his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh angrily and tearfully denied on Thursday a university professor’s accusation that he sexually assaulted her 36 years ago after she told a dramatic U.S. Senate hearing she was “100 percent certain” he did it.
Christine Blasey Ford, her voice sometimes cracking with emotion, appeared in public for the first time to detail her allegation against Kavanaugh, a conservative federal appeals court judge chosen by President Donald Trump for a lifetime job on the top U.S. court. Ford told the committee she feared Kavanaugh would rape and accidentally kill her during the alleged assault when both her high school students in Maryland.
Kavanaugh testified after Ford finished her appearance, and they were never in the hearing room together.
“I swear today, under oath, before the Senate and the nation, before my family and God, I am innocent of this charge,” Kavanaugh told the Judiciary Committee.
Calling himself a victim of “grotesque and obvious character assassination,” Kavanaugh, speaking passionately, said he “unequivocally and categorically” denied Ford’s allegation.
Kavanaugh at times choked back tears, especially when he mentioned that his daughter suggested they pray for Ford, when he spoke of his father and when he mentioned women friends who have rallied to support him.
The momentous hearing could determine whether Kavanaugh will be confirmed by the Senate after a pitched political battle between Trump’s fellow Republicans and Democrats who oppose the nominee.
Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University in California, said over four hours of testimony that a drunken Kavanaugh attacked her and tried to remove her clothing at a gathering of teenagers in Maryland when he was 17 years old and she was 15 in 1982.
Kavanaugh said he wanted to testify as soon as Ford’s allegation first emerged and was not surprised that other allegations followed.
“In those 10 long days, as was predictable and as I predicted, my family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed by vicious and false additional accusations.”
The delay in scheduling a hearing “has been horrible to me and my family, to the Supreme Court and to the country,” Kavanaugh said.
“I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process,” Kavanaugh added.
Looking somber, Kavanaugh was accompanied by his wife as he entered the hearing room. He sharply attacked Democratic senators, an unusual move by a sitting judge nominated to the Supreme Court, saying he was the victim of “a calculated and orchestrated political hit” after it earlier appeared he was heading toward confirmation. He accused the Democrats of “lying in wait,” with the Ford allegations, only revealing them publicly after his original confirmation hearing was completed.
He was careful not to denounce Ford, noting that he wished her “no ill will.” He said that he was not questioning that Ford may have been sexually assaulted by some person in some place at some time, but that he had never assaulted her or anyone.
The hearing, which has riveted Americans and intensified the political polarization in the United States, occurred against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault.
“With what degree of certainty do you believe Brett Kavanaugh assaulted you?” Democratic Senator Richard Durbin asked Ford.
“One hundred percent,” she replied, remaining firm and unruffled through hours of testimony even under questioning by a sex crimes prosecutor hired by the committee’s Republicans.
Ford said “absolutely not” when Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein asked her if it could be a case of mistaken identity, as Kavanaugh has suggested.
Democrats lauded Ford’s testimony as credible, brave and, in the words of Senator Cory Booker, “nothing short of heroic.”
“I want to thank you for your courage. And I want to tell you I believe you. … And I believe many Americans across the country believe you,” Democratic Senator Kamala Harris said.
While some Republicans and Trump have called the allegations by Ford and the two other women part of a smear campaign, Ford told the committee she had no political motivation, adding, “I am an independent person and I am no pawn.”
Ford was seated at a table in the packed hearing room flanked by her lawyers, facing a bank of senators. Cameras from news photographers clicked as she entered the room and took her seat, smiling nervously. Ford told the senators she was “terrified” to testify but felt it was her civic duty come forward. The audience at the hearing remained in rapt attention.
‘YELL FOR HELP’
“Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes. He had a hard time because he was very inebriated and because I was wearing a one-piece bathing suit under my clothing. I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help,” Ford said, adding that Kavanaugh and a friend of his, Mark Judge, were “drunkenly laughing during the attack.”
Democratic senators sought to score political points during their five minutes apiece of questioning Ford. The panel’s Republican senators, all men, did not question her, assigning that task to Rachel Mitchell, a sex crimes prosecutor.
While Mitchell sought to probe Ford’s account including any gaps in her story, her questioning seemed disjointed. She took turns with the Democratic senators to ask questions in five minute segments, disrupting her flow.
Supreme Court appointments must be confirmed by the Senate. The Republicans control the Senate by a narrow 51-49 margin. That means that a handful of moderate Republican senators who have not announced whether or not they support Kavanaugh could determine his fate.
One of them, Senator Lisa Murkowski, told Reuters: “I find Dr. Ford’s testimony to be credible.”
The committee could vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation on Friday, with a final Senate vote early next week.
Some Democrats have called on Kavanaugh to withdraw in light of the allegations.
The controversy has unfolded just weeks ahead of the Nov. 6 congressional elections in which Democrats are trying to seize control of Congress from the Republicans. Kavanaugh’s confirmation would cement conservative control of the high court as Trump moves to shift it and the broader federal judiciary to the right.
Ford said Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming during the assault, adding, “This was what terrified me the most, and has 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.”
Ford said she has suffered from claustrophobia and anxiety as a result of her experience and initially struggled when at college.
Her strongest memory of the incident, Ford said, was the “uproarious laughter between the two (Kavanaugh and Judge) and their having fun at my expense.” She said the laughter has haunted her ever since.
Falling back on her own professional expertise, Ford fended off Mitchell’s questions about her memories by explaining the biological underpinnings of memory formation and what factors can prompt anxiety.
In her testimony, Ford said she could not recall the precise date or location of the alleged assault, how many people were at the gathering or how she got home afterward after she escaped the attack.
Judge, who wrote a memoir about his experience as a teenage alcoholic, submitted a statement to the committee saying he could recall no such incident.
Ford repeatedly said during her testimony that further information about Judge, including when he worked at a local Safeway grocery store that she remembers seeing him at after the attack, could helped her recollect the summer of 1982 in more detail.
Republican Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the committee who strongly supported Kavanaugh during confirmation hearings earlier in the month, declined to give his views on Ford’s testimony.
“I shouldn’t comment until we’re all done and maybe not comment until I’ve slept on it,” Grassley told reporters during a break.
Two other women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, have accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in the 1980s. He has also denied those allegations.
Ramirez accused Kavanaugh of exposing himself during a drunken dormitory party during the 1983-84 academic year when both attended Yale University.
Swetnick said she witnessed efforts by Kavanaugh and others to get girls drunk at parties so they could be raped. She said Kavanaugh was present at a 1982 party where she was raped.
Trump, who has himself faced accusations of sexual misconduct, chose Kavanaugh to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired effective in July.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Andrew Chung, Amanda Becker, Richard Cowan, Makini Brice and Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham