WASHINGTON — There was a time when Republican senators were so eager to handle an accusation of sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh delicately, they hired a female prosecutor to question the accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, on their behalf. Even President Trump, who almost never shies away from a fight, tempered his comments about Ford.
That was last week.
By Wednesday, it had become clear that Trump and his Republican allies had opened a new and risky front in their quest to see Kavanaugh confirmed to the nation’s highest court: to aggressively dispute Ford’s credibility over her allegations that Kavanaugh drunkenly groped her and tried to remove her clothing in high school.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed shock Wednesday after Trump personally and sarcastically mocked Ford at a political rally in Mississippi on Tuesday. But that turned out to be just an opening salvo in a broader shift by the GOP. The change appeared to favor a strategy of energizing the Republican base, following a phase where party leaders had expressed sensitivity toward Ford.
“She’s been treated like a Faberge egg by all of us, beginning with me and the president,” said Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to Trump, on Wednesday morning. Explaining Trump’s comments Tuesday night, she added, “He’s pointing out factual inconsistencies. Do you have corroboration for her claims? Excuse me, can you fill in her memory gaps?”
Trump’s comments Tuesday risked further angering women over Republican handling of Ford’s allegations and other accusations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh, as Republicans barrel toward a confirmation vote as early as this week. Democrats and even some Republicans accused Trump of going too far in his attack on an alleged victim of a violent sexual assault.
Speaking to thousands of people in Southaven, Miss., on Tuesday night, Trump imitated Ford, seeking to highlight lapses in her memory of the night she says Kavanaugh attacked her in the early 1980s.
“How did you get home? I don’t remember. How did you get there? I don’t remember. Where is the place? I don’t remember,” said Trump, as two older men behind him laughed, and a middle-aged woman in sunglasses and a pearl necklace grinned and hoisted a sign that said “Women for Trump.”
It was a startling shift from the president’s comments last week, when Trump called Ford a “very credible witness’’ following her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. And his words were almost immediately condemned by the very Republicans whose support is seen as critical to a successful confirmation of Kavanaugh, though it was not clear how Trump’s remarks would influence their votes.
“It’s kind of appalling,” said Senator Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican whose last-minute doubts amid the mounting allegations against Kavanaugh prompted his party’s leaders to call for an FBI investigation.
Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican, called it “wholly inappropriate and, in my view, unacceptable.”
And Senator Susan Collins of Maine, speeding through a hallway on Capitol Hill, wheeled around to face reporters just before she disappeared behind a heavy wooden door: “The president’s comments,” she said, “were just plain wrong.”
The more aggressive GOP strategy has set up a major collision along the lines of both gender and party. As Republicans renew their scrutiny of Ford and stoke the anger of white Republican men by appealing to their fears of being falsely accused, Democrats and women activists in Washington and beyond are doubling down on efforts to tell personal stories of assault and abuse, and force lawmakers to listen to them.
“For too long, far too long, survivors of sexual assault have been afraid to come forward because they thought that powerful men would shout them down and destroy their character,” said Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, on Wednesday. “The president of the United States — the most powerful man there is — confirmed those fears for millions of women in the most despicable way possible.”
On Twitter, Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urged people to “stop personal attacks & destruction” of both Ford and Kavanaugh. But he seized on a sworn statement sent to the committee by a former boyfriend of Ford’s that claimed Ford once helped prepare a friend for a polygraph exam.
During her testimony in front of the Judiciary Committee last week, Ford said she had never advised anyone on how to take a polygraph. Her lawyers had given the committee an analysis of a polygraph she took in regard to the allegations, which indicated no deception.
“This statement raises specific concerns about the reliability of her polygraph examination results,” Grassley wrote in a letter to Ford’s legal team. Ford’s former friend has denied Ford helped her.
Ford’s lawyers responded that she would provide any requested documents to the FBI when she is interviewed for their reopened background check into Kavanaugh — but no interview had been scheduled.
The background check was expected to wrap up late Wednesday, although Democrats complained it appeared to be too limited in scope.
The Associated Press reported that a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in the days after Ford and Kavanaugh testified showed that public opinion had started to tilt against Kavanaugh, with 48 percent of voters opposed to his confirmation and 42 percent in favor. Women were far more likely than men to oppose Kavanaugh, 55 percent to 40 percent.
The mood on Capitol Hill was tense as demonstrators roamed the Capitol, trying to get Republican lawmakers like Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska and John Kennedy of Louisiana to listen to their stories of abuse.
More survivors of sexual abuse were expected to speak on Thursday in front of the Capitol.
“It is easy for them to dismiss one of us, but when we inundate them with the reality that we are facing, it is impossible for them to ignore us,” said Tae Phoenix, 35, a singer-songwriter from Seattle who was lingering in the basement of a Senate office building, hoping to find a Republican senator whom she could tell about the sexual violations she said she experienced at the ages of 3 and 19.
In recent days, survivors of sexual assault and abuse have emerged as a vocal group of activists. Two women, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, encountered Flake as he entered an elevator last Friday, hours before he asked for a last-minute investigation into the claims against Kavanaugh.
“I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me,” Gallagher told him. “I didn’t tell anyone, and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter.”
Women elsewhere have adopted that tactic this week, inside and outside the Capitol. On Monday, a group of activists occupied a campaign office for Democratic Senator Joe Manchin in Charleston, W.Va., and refused to leave until he heard their stories and committed to vote no on Kavanaugh.
The women held a conference call with Manchin around 11 p.m., and nine were arrested shortly before 1 a.m. on Tuesday.
“I know him, and I told him that I was a survivor,” Karan Ireland, a Democratic city councilor in Charleston, who was among those arrested, said in an interview with the Globe. “These stories, they’ve been hidden under wraps for years, decades, and now we’re going to make the space and the time to share them and you’re going to listen.”
In a statement released after the protests, Manchin said, “No man can understand the trauma that women experience from a sexual assault.” He has not indicated how he will vote.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said in a Senate floor speech that the protesters would not blunt Republicans’ determination to vote on Kavanaugh.
“I don’t care how many members they chase, how many people they harass here in the halls,’’ McConnell said. “We will not be intimidated by these people.’’