WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, under mounting pressure from senators of his own party, will call President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, and the woman who has accused him of sexual assault before the committee on Monday for extraordinary public hearings only weeks before the midterm elections.
In setting the hearing, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, backed down from a committee vote on Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, planned for this Thursday, and pushed a confirmation once seen as inevitable into limbo.
The hearing with Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychologist in Northern California, sets up a potentially explosive public showdown that carries unmistakable echoes of the 1991 testimony of Anita Hill, who accused the future Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in an episode that riveted the nation and ushered a slew of women into public office. It will play out against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, which has energized Democratic women across the nation, in an institution, the Senate, that is more than three-quarters male.
Trump vigorously defended his nominee on Monday, calling him an “outstanding” judge with an unblemished record and dismissing as “ridiculous” the prospect that Kavanaugh might withdraw his nomination.
“He is somebody very special; at the same time, we want to go through a process, we want to make sure everything is perfect, everything is just right,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “If it takes a little delay, it will take a little delay — it shouldn’t certainly be very much.”
The announcement of Monday’s hearing capped a tumultuous day in Washington, as senators of both parties absorbed the allegations against Kavanaugh, who only last week seemed on a glide path toward confirmation.
Blasey has said Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a social gathering in the 1980s when they were both teenagers. Kavanaugh has categorically denied the allegations, which Blasey detailed in a letter that was forwarded to Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, who kept its existence secret at Blasey’s request until last week.
By Monday, both the contents of the letter and Blasey’s identity had spilled out into the open, intensifying what had already been a nasty partisan battle over Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, angrily assailed Democrats for raising the allegations at the last minute. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, demanded the FBI investigate and raised questions about Kavanaugh’s veracity.
On Monday evening, The Mercury News in California published the accounts of two friends of Blasey, who said she told them in July that she was going forward with her accusations.
It will be up Judge Kavanaugh to convince wavering senators of his innocence. Both Senators Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, said Monday that if true, Blasey’s accusations would disqualify the nominee from the Supreme Court.
“Obviously if Judge Kavanaugh has lied about what happened, that would be disqualifying,” Collins told reporters, adding, “For my part, I believe that it’s very important that both professor Ford and Judge Kavanaugh testify under oath about these allegations. I need to see them and listen to their answers to the questions in order to make an assessment.”
Flake, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold Monday’s hearing, said he is “presupposing nothing with this hearing,” but added, “If you believe the charges are true, you vote no.”
Washington’s advocacy machinery sprang to life. A conservative group said it would spend $1.5 million on a television advertising campaign to defend Kavanaugh, while a liberal group announced a $700,000 ad buy intended to pressure senators in swing states. Allies of Kavanaugh made public letters from two former girlfriends, attesting to his character, while a hashtag sprang up on Twitter: #BelieveChristine.
Kavanaugh spent the day at the White House, huddling and strategizing with aides in the war room across from the West Wing from which they had meticulously planned his path to confirmation. On Monday, though, the discussions were about how to salvage his chances through a hearing that officials were resigned to becoming a dramatic public spectacle.
Eager to defend himself from an accusation he insisted was untrue, Kavanaugh had wanted to put out a statement over the weekend signaling his willingness to address the charge with the committee, according to allies and an administration official who insisted on anonymity to characterize his thinking.
But Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, and others urged him to hold back, believing that they and McConnell, as well as Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, could push past the allegation of a decades-old incident, handling it privately while keeping a Thursday vote on track.
By Monday morning, however, with Blasey’s lawyer saying she was willing to appear in front of Congress, McGahn and others changed course and agreed that Kavanaugh should put out his statement.
“I have never done anything like what the accuser describes — to her or to anyone,” the statement said. “Because this never happened, I had no idea who was making this accusation until she identified herself yesterday.”
Both in her letter and an interview published on Sunday by the Washington Post, Blasey said that during a gathering of teenagers at a private home in suburban Montgomery County, Md., Kavanaugh, along with a friend, pushed her into a bedroom as she was heading to a bathroom. She said the young Kavanaugh jumped on top of her, grinding his body against hers as he tried to remove her clothing. When she tried to scream, she said, he clapped his hand over her mouth.
“They both laughed as Kavanaugh tried to disrobe me in their highly inebriated state,” she wrote in the letter, made public Monday by CNN. “With Kavanaugh’s hand over my mouth I feared he may inadvertently kill me.”
Her lawyer, Debra Katz, said in an interview she was ready to go before the committee. “We hope that this hearing is fair and not another weaponized attack on a woman who has come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against a powerful man,” Katz said.
Public hearings could be charged, especially in a political year marked by rising female political activism and a surge of female candidates. No Republican women serve on the Judiciary Committee, and senior Republican men appeared ready to defend the nominee.
“I believe him,” Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told reporters after a private phone call with Kavanaugh Monday afternoon. Hatch said he saw “lots of reasons” not to believe Blasey’s accusation.
“He is a person of immense integrity,” the senator said. “I have known him for a long time. He has always been straightforward, honest truthful and a very, very decent man.”
Republicans denounced Feinstein for withholding the information about Blasey until last week. “If they believe Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser, why didn’t they surface this information earlier so that he could be questioned about it?” McConnell asked. “And if they didn’t believe her and chose to withhold the information, why did they decide at the 11th hour to release it?”