WASHINGTON — Facing a second allegation of sexual misconduct, a defiant Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Monday launched a scorching counteroffensive against what he called a “smear’’ campaign, offering up vigorous denials and a vow that he would not back down from the nomination.
“The coordinated effort to destroy my good name,” wrote Kavanaugh in a letter to senators, “will not drive me out.”
His statement, issued in advance of a looming clash Thursday between Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused of him of a drunken sexual assault 36 years ago, were bolstered by President Trump and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who said Kavanaugh was being unfairly attacked.
The Republican strategy was the most vigorous effort yet to put the damaging accusations of sexual assault into the framework of a partisan brawl before the lights go on in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room Thursday. The unvarnished anger over the newest allegations represented a departure from last week’s comparatively muted calls from Republicans that both sides testify before the Senate, and it signaled a willingness to contest the allegations against Kavanaugh more aggressively as they scramble to confirm him.
“In my opinion it’s totally political,’’ Trump told reporters.
Kavanaugh’s letter to Senate Judiciary Committee leaders contained his strongest rebuttal of the allegations, evoking Justice Clarence Thomas’s sharp denials of sexually harassing Anita Hill during the fight over his confirmation in 1991.
Kavanaugh and his wife also appeared together on Fox News in a taped interview. Kavanaugh repeated his denials of ever committing sexual assault and said he was a virgin through high school and for “many years after.”
The moves by Kavanaugh and his allies came after The New Yorker on Sunday published a story in which Deborah Ramirez, a college classmate of Kavanaugh’s, said the judge had exposed himself to her at a party when they were both Yale undergraduates. On Monday, Michael Avenatti, the Democratic lawyer who has represented adult film actress Stormy Daniels, said on Twitter that he represented a third woman with “credible information” about Kavanaugh and a high school friend of his, Mark Judge.
Ford says Judge was in the room during the alleged attack by Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh, who has repeatedly denied Ford’s allegations, also sharply disputed Ramirez’s claim on Monday, calling it a “false and uncorroborated accusation from 35 years ago,” and said he was being subjected to “grotesque and obvious character assassination.”
“These are smears,” wrote Kavanaugh, “pure and simple.”
On Capitol Hill, a visibly irritated McConnell called The New Yorker’s story “thin and unsupported” and accused Democrats of “trying to destroy a man’s personal and professional life on the basis of decades old allegations that are unsubstantiated and uncorroborated.”
Calling Kavanaugh one of the most qualified Supreme Court nominees in history, McConnell vowed to move forward “in the near future” with the nomination process — regardless, apparently, of Thursday’s testimony.
“Judge Kavanaugh will be voted on here on the Senate floor, up or down on the Senate floor,” McConnell pledged.
When Clarence Thomas faced accusations of sexual harassment in 1991, he pushed back in no uncertain terms, calling it “high-tech lynching” and managing to win confirmation, 52 votes to 48. Much has changed since members of the Senate Judiciary Committee aggressively questioned his accuser, Hill, during those hearings, said Lori Ringhand, a constitutional law professor at the University of Georgia.
“I think the senators are really in uncharted territory here,” Ringhand said. “The discourse around sexual harassment and sexual assault is very different today than it was in 1991 and I think that all of the questioning senators have to walk a very fine line between advocating for the result that they want and recognizing that overt attacks on Dr. Ford are not going to be well received by the public.”
Republican analysts conceded that the showdown could carry grave political risks for Republicans, who could alienate female voters if they appear insensitive to claims of sexual assault but are trying to avoid demoralizing their base or looking weak by backing down.
“I think we’re kind of damned if we do, damned if we don’t,” said Liz Mair, a Republican strategist. “I think the whole thing is a pretty major mess at this stage.”
With Republicans holding a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate, they can only afford to lose one confirmation vote from their own party (Vice President Mike Pence could break a 50-50 tie in favor of the GOP). And no one faces a harder decision about Kavanaugh’s nomination than the Senate’s moderate female Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, particularly if Ford’s testimony on Thursday is deemed credible, Mair said.
“I think this puts Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski in a terrible, terrible bind,” Mair said.
On Monday, protesters spilled into the Capitol, with 82 people arrested in the rotunda of a Senate office building, and another 46 arrested outside of Collins’s office earlier in the day.
“We needed to be here to remind her of the Mainers who are calling on her to listen to women, to listen to Christine,” said Marie Follayttar, the executive director of the Mainers for Accountable Leadership PAC, which has been involved in an effort to secure more than $1 million in pledges from donors who say they will give to an opponent of Collins if she votes to confirm Kavanaugh.
Many of the demonstrators wore black T-shirts that said “believe women.” Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat of California, wore all black, too, and tweeted that she had done so in support of survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
Meanwhile, other Senate Republicans moved to show solidarity behind Kavanaugh and McConnell. On Monday, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah called for a vote on Kavanaugh after Ford testifies and accused Democrats of engaging in a “coordinated effort to stop Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation by any means possible.” And over the weekend, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina signaled that he was unlikely to be moved by Ford’s testimony. “Unless there’s something more,” he said on Fox News Sunday, “No, I’m not going to ruin Judge Kavanaugh’s life over this.”
The display made some Republicans outside of Washington — particularly women — more worried that their tone could lose them voters in the fall.
“That does not give you the idea that it’s going to be an open hearing and that it’s going to make any kind of a difference and I think that is disservice to the public,” said Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican former governor of New Jersey.
Ford said her only motivation in coming forward was to tell the truth, and she said she had faced death threats and people following her on the freeway. She said her family had hired security.
“While I am frightened, please know my fear will not hold me back from testifying and you will be provided with answers to all your questions,” she wrote Saturday in a letter to Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In his typed response, Grassley said Democrats or her lawyer should have informed him of her allegations earlier and added a handwritten note.
“P.S.,” wrote Grassley, “I look forward to your testimony.”