WASHINGTON (AP) — Christine Blasey Ford declared Thursday that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her as he and a friend shared “uproarious laughter” in a locked room at a 1980s high school gathering, recounting her allegations to the Senate Judiciary Committee and a riveted nation in a drama that threatens to derail Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.
Her account, delivered in a soft and sometimes-halting voice, came as the Judiciary panel began an extraordinary session that Republicans hope will let them salvage Kavanaugh’s chances of joining the high court. She showed no hesitancy in affirming the crucial question about the alleged incident, telling senators her certainty that Kavanaugh was her attacker was “100 percent.”
The conservative jurist’s Senate confirmation had seemed assured until Ford came forward and then other women emerged with additional allegations of sexual misconduct. Kavanaugh, now 53, has denied them all and awaited his own chance to testify later Thursday. It has become less clear that Republican leaders will be able to hold GOP senators behind President Donald Trump’s nominee.
In an election-season battle that’s being waged along a polarized nation’s political and cultural fault lines, Trump and most Republicans have rallied behind Kavanaugh. They’ve accused Ford and the other women of making unproven allegations and have questioned why they’d not publicly revealed them for decades.
But with televisions across the nation tuned to the hearing — senators among those riveted to their screens — it was unclear how lawmakers who will ultimately decide Kavanaugh’s fate will assess Ford’s credibility.
Ford has said Kavanaugh trapped her on a bed and tried undressing her, grinding his body against her and muffling her cries with her hand. “I believed he was going to rape me,” she said in her opening statement.
Democrats have rallied strongly behind Ford.
Asked by Patrick Leahy of Vermont for her strongest memory of the alleged incident, Ford mentioned the two boys’ “laughter — the uproarious laughter between the two and they’re having fun at my expense.”
The 51-year-old California psychology professor spoke carefully and deliberately during the hearing, using scientific terminology at one point to describe how a brain might remember details of events decades later. The boys’ laughter was “indelible in the hippocampus,” she said.
Ford has said Kavanaugh friend Mark Judge was also in the room. Judge has said he doesn’t remember the incident and has declined to appear before the panel.
Ford told the top committee Democrat, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, that she’d “agonized daily” over coming forward about the alleged decades-old attack. She said she feared the personal consequences would be akin to “jumping in front of a train.”
In fact, both she and Kavanaugh have received death threats.
When Feinstein asked her how she could be sure that Kavanaugh was the attacker, Ford said, “The same way I’m sure I’m talking to you right now.” Later, she told Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that her certainty was “100 percent.”
The Judiciary panel’s 11 Republicans — all men — let Rachel Mitchell, a veteran sex crimes prosecutor from Arizona, asked their questions. She began by expressing sympathy for Ford, who’d said she was “terrified” to testify, saying, “I just wanted to let you know, I’m very sorry. That’s not right.”
Mitchell led Ford through a detailed recollection of the events she says occurred on the day of the alleged incident. But under the committee’s procedures, the career prosecutor was limited to five minutes at a time, interspersed between Democrats’ questions, creating a choppy effect as she tried piecing together the story.
Before she began, committee chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa defended the Republicans’ handling of the confirmation proceedings so far. Feinstein criticized Republicans who have rejected Democratic demands to slow Kavanaugh’s confirmation process and let the FBI investigate all the allegations, saying, “What I don’t understand is the rush to judgment.”
Kavanaugh and Ford were the only witnesses invited to testify before the panel. But the conservative jurist is facing allegations of sexual misconduct from other women as well, forcing Republican leaders to struggle to keep support for him from eroding.
Grassley complained that lawyers for other accusers have not provided information to his panel and said, “The committee can’t do an investigation if attorneys are stonewalling.”
Republicans acknowledged that much was riding on Kavanaugh’s performance. Even Trump, who fiercely defends his nominee, said he would be watching and was “open to changing my mind.”
Kavanaugh’s teetering grasp on winning confirmation was evident when Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, expressed concern, in a private meeting with senators Wednesday, about a new, third accuser, according to a person with knowledge of the gathering. Republicans control the Senate 51-49 and can lose only one vote. Collins is among the few senators who’ve not made clear how they’ll vote.
Collins walked into that meeting carrying a copy of Julie Swetnick’s signed declaration, which included fresh accusations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh and his high school friend Mark Judge.
Collins said senators should hear from Judge. After being told Judge has said he doesn’t want to appear before the committee, she reminded her colleagues that the Senate has subpoena power.
Republicans are pushing to seat Kavanaugh before the November midterms, when Senate control could fall to the Democrats and a replacement Trump nominee could have even greater difficulty. Kavanaugh’s ascendance to the high court could help lock in a conservative majority for a generation, shaping dozens of rulings on abortion, regulation, the environment and more.
Republicans also risk rejection by female voters in November if they are seen as not fully respecting women and their allegations.
In a sworn statement, Swetnick said she witnessed Kavanaugh “consistently engage in excessive drinking and inappropriate contact of a sexual nature with women in the early 1980s.” Her attorney, Michael Avenatti, who also represents a porn actress who is suing Trump, provided her sworn declaration to the Judiciary panel.
Meanwhile, the lawyer for Deborah Ramirez, who says Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party when they attended Yale University, raised her profile in a round of television interviews.
Moments before committee chairman Grassley gaveled his panel into session, Ramirez tweeted her support for Ford: “They want us to feel alone and isolated but I’m there wrapping my arms around you and I hope you feel the people of this nation wrapping their arms around all of us.”
Ford told the committee that, one night in the summer of 1982, a drunken Kavanaugh forced her down on a bed, “groped me and tried to take off my clothes,” then clamped his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream before she was able to escape.
Kavanaugh is being challenged on multiple fronts by his accusers, former classmates and college friends. They say the good-guy image he projects in public bears little relation to the hard-partying behavior they witnessed when he was young.
In his prepared testimony, he acknowledged drinking in high school with his friends, but said he’d never done anything “remotely resembling” what Ford describes. He said he never had a “sexual or physical encounter of any kind” with her.
He also provided the committee with detailed calendar pages listing in green-and-white squares the activities that filled his summer of 1982 when he was 17 years old — exams, movies, sports and plenty of parties. That’s the year when Ford says she believes the assault occurred.
Nothing on the calendar appears to refer to her.
Ford released sworn statements from people who said she had told them about the assault in later years.
Late Wednesday, the committee released a flurry of other documents of unclear significance.
Transcripts of private interviews with committee investigators show they asked Kavanaugh about two previously undisclosed accusations received by Senate offices. One came in an anonymous letter sent to the office of Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., describing an incident in a bar in 1998, when Kavanaugh was working for the independent counsel investigating President Bill Clinton. The other accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in college. Kavanaugh has denied them both.