Kavanaugh issues denial; accuser willing to testify

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court pick, on Monday called a woman’s allegation that he sexually assaulted her 36 years ago “completely false,” while a lawyer said the accuser is willing to publicly testify before a Senate panel that is scheduled to vote this week on his nomination.

In a day of fast-moving developments, all 10 Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee overseeing the confirmation process sent a letter urging a delay in Thursday’s planned vote so the FBI can investigate the allegation.

Republican Senator Susan Collins, whose vote could be pivotal in deciding whether Kavanaugh gets confirmed, said on Twitter the nominee and his accuser should both testify under oath before the committee.

Christine Blasey Ford, a university professor in California, has accused Kavanaugh, a conservative appeals court judge chosen by Trump for a lifetime job on the top U.S. court, of trying to attack her and remove her clothing in 1982 when they were both high school students in a Maryland suburb outside Washington.

“This is a completely false allegation. I have never done anything like what the accuser describes - to her or to anyone,” Kavanaugh said in a statement issued by the White House.

“Because this never happened, I had no idea who was making this accusation until she identified herself yesterday,” added Kavanaugh, who said he is willing to talk to the Judiciary Committee in any way it deems appropriate “to refute this false allegation, from 36 years ago, and defend my integrity.”

Kavanaugh, whose statement was his second denying the allegation but the first since Ford was publicly identified as his accuser, was at the White House on Monday morning, a White House official said.

Ford’s accusation has significantly complicated his nomination, which must be approved first by the Judiciary Committee and then by the full chamber, which is narrowly controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans.

The high-stakes confirmation fight comes just weeks before the Nov. 6 congressional elections in which Democrats are seeking to take control of Congress from Trump’s fellow Republicans.

White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said sworn testimony from both Kavanaugh and Ford on the specific allegation should be considered as part of the record in the judge’s hearings. “This woman should not be insulted and she should not be ignored,” Conway said told Fox News.

In television interviews on Monday, Ford’s Washington-based lawyer, Debra Katz, said her client would be willing to speak out publicly. Asked if that included testimony under oath at a public hearing before senators, Katz told CBS’s “This Morning” program: “She’s willing to do what she needs to do.”

Katz’s comments suggested any public hearing could be explosive. Ford believes Kavanaugh’s alleged actions were “attempted rape” and “that if it were not for the severe intoxication of Brett Kavanaugh, she would have been raped,” Katz told NBC’s “Today” program.

Katz told CBS that Ford had consumed a beer but was not drunk. Ford was 15 at the time of the alleged incident and Kavanaugh was 17.

‘DESERVES TO BE HEARD’

Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said the standard procedure would be to conduct follow-up telephone calls with Kavanaugh and Ford. Grassley said he intends to work with the senior Democrat on the committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, to schedule the calls. He said Democrats so far have refused to cooperate.

“Anyone who comes forward as Dr. Ford has deserves to be heard, so I will continue working on a way to hear her out in an appropriate, precedented and respectful manner,” Grassley said in a statement.

The panel’s Democratic members pushed for a delay.

“All Senators, regardless of party, should insist the FBI perform its due diligence and fully investigate the allegations as part of its review of Judge Kavanaugh’s background,” they wrote in a letter to Grassley made public by Feinstein.

Republicans hold a slim 11-10 advantage on the Judiciary Committee and a 51-49 majority in the Senate.

“Trying to rush this through on Thursday is an insult to the women of America and an insult to the majesty of the Supreme Court of the United States,” Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer told ABC’s “The View.”

Republican panel member Jeff Flake said he would not be comfortable voting on the nomination until the committee hears from Ford. Committee Republican Lindsey Graham welcomed hearing from Ford but said it should “be done immediately so the process can continue as scheduled.”

Trump has the chance to tilt the Supreme Court further to the right by replacing the retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who sometimes sided with the court’s liberal wing. Without Kennedy on the court, the justices are split 4-4 between liberals and conservatives.

Even before the allegation emerged, Kavanaugh’s fate appeared to rest on two moderate Republican women senators who support abortion rights, Collins and Senator Lisa Murkowski, told CNN late on Sunday that Republicans “might have to consider” discussing a possible delay.

Ford detailed her story in a letter sent to Feinstein in July. The letter’s contents leaked last week and Ford identified herself in an interview with the Washington Post published on Sunday.

Ford and her lawyers have not responded to Reuters requests for comment.

The Kavanaugh fight has similarities to the confirmation process for conservative Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. He faced sexual harassment allegations brought by a law professor named Anita Hill but was ultimately confirmed by the Senate.

Kavanaugh was a key part of an independent counsel’s team that investigated Democratic President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, including his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

If Kavanaugh’s nomination fails, Trump would get to select a replacement, but that nominee likely would not be confirmed by the Senate before the election. Even if Republicans lose control of the Senate in the midterm election, they likely would be able to vote on a second nominee before the new Congress is seated in January.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Will Dunham

 

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