The decades-old sexual misconduct charge detonated at the most critical juncture of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle — sending Republicans into damage control mode and leaving Democrats unsure how or whether to capitalize.
With the exception of one Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein, lawmakers in both parties claimed to be blindsided by an anonymous allegation that Kavanaugh forced himself on a woman in a locked room at a high school party decades ago. Republicans scrambled to round up character witnesses, while Democrats largely remained mum, waiting to see what would drop next and whether they have an actual shot at derailing the nomination.
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But after a tense 24 hours of speculation and partisan tussling over what one top Republican called “wholly unverifiable” allegations, Kavanaugh remained exactly where he started: neither closer to nor farther away from the 50 votes needed to give President Donald Trump a second high court justice in two years. The two swing-vote GOP senators who hold Kavanaugh’s fate in their hands, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, made no comment Friday on an anonymous woman’s charge.
Their silence, however, also leaves Kavanaugh’s nomination still on course, at least in the view of senior Republicans. Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) plans to press ahead with a Thursday committee vote on Kavanaugh, and GOP sources said that nothing short of public skepticism from Collins or Murkowski would upend the party’s plans for a final Supreme Court confirmation vote this month on the full Senate floor.
“My guess is most senators would feel like it’s part of their duty and due diligence to read the letter. But without seeing it and knowing anything about it or anything else it’s just hard for me to even tell whether it’s an issue or not,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who supports Kavanaugh, said in an interview Friday.
The White House first heard vague rumors late last week about the allegation against Kavanaugh, which was referred to the FBI late Wednesday by Feinstein, the Judiciary panel’s top Democrat. But the specifics of the alleged high-school sexual assault didn’t land on White House Counsel Don McGahn’s desk until mid-day Thursday, a White House aide said.
McGahn received the letter from the FBI around noon and immediately passed it to Capitol Hill, according to the aide. Kavanaugh and a network of clerks and former clerks who have been working with him during the confirmation process immediately lurched into action, contacting more than five dozen women who have known the judge since high school to sign the letter attesting to his character.
That effort culminated in a missive released by Grassley on Friday, signed by 65 women who knew Kavanaugh during his high school years, defending him as “a good person.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a former Judiciary chairman, was among Kavanaugh’s quickest defenders.
“Every accuser deserves to be heard. But a process of verification is also necessary,” Hatch said in a statement. “The claims are wholly unverifiable, and come at the tail-end of a process that was already marred by ugly innuendo, dishonesty, and the nastiest form of our politics.”
However, most Republicans on Capitol Hill preparing to defend Kavanaugh amid attacks from Democrats were not aware of the letter as recently as Thursday, according to two people working on the nomination, and Grassley’s office said Friday that he still had not seen the woman’s letter.
The Senate has received an updated FBI background report on Kavanaugh that includes the woman’s letter, which means that senators will have access to the letter if they want to view it. A White House aide said the Judiciary panel received a physical copy of the document within an hour after McGahn did.
Feinstein, who has declined to say when she first became aware of the accusation, said she had “honored [a] decision” by the woman making the charges to maintain confidentiality. “It is critical in matters of sexual misconduct to protect the identity of the victim when they wish to remain anonymous, and the senator did so in this case,” Feinstein said in a Friday statement.
But the senator’s handling of the matter has stoked already-fierce partisan tensions over the confirmation. Her liberal challenger for reelection, state Sen. Kevin de Leon, torched her for holding off on sending the woman’s allegation to authorities for “nearly three months.”
The woman leveling the charge against Kavanaugh attended a nearby high school at the same time as the nominee. She, Kavanaugh, and another high-school male were alone in a room together when the alleged misconduct took place, according to two sources. The New Yorker reported Friday that the woman alleged Kavanaugh had attempted to force himself on her while physically restraining her.
The flaring controversy has not shaken Republican plans to bring Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Senate floor before the Supreme Court’s new term begins in the first week of October. Collins and Kavanaugh had a previously scheduled hour-long phone call on Friday, a spokeswoman said, though the contents of the call were not divulged. A spokeswoman for Murkowski did not respond to a request for comment.
In the letter that the GOP circulated, Kavanaugh’s female contemporaries countered the damning portrayal of the nominee that has surfaced over the past 24 hours. “Through the more than 35 years we have known him, Brett has stood out for his friendship, character, and integrity. In particular, he has always treated women with decency and respect,” the women wrote. “That was true when he was in high school, and it has remained true to this day.”
The White House also released a statement from Kavanaugh that rebuts the woman’s charge. “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation,” the 53-year-old nominee states. “I did not do this back in high school or at any time.”
Democrats have remained notably mum about the scandal as it began unfolding, even as liberal groups off the Hill called for a pointed push to withdraw Kavanaugh’s nomination. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also had not seen the woman’s letter as of midday Friday, according to an aide.
“That’s now in the hands of the FBI. That’s all I’m going to say about it,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who pressed Kavanaugh on the #MeToo movement during his confirmation hearing, told POLITICO’s Off Message podcast in an interview set to run Tuesday.
Brian Fallon, a former senior Schumer adviser who now helms the left-leaning group Demand Justice, nudged Democats for a more pointed response. “The message needs to be clear: withdraw,” he said.
Undecided red-state Democrats were similarly tight-lipped following the report on the letter’s content. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Doug Jones of Alabama and Jon Tester of Montana had no immediate comment. Tester is still trying to schedule an initial meeting with Kavanaugh and Manchin is seeking a second meeting.
McCaskill said at a debate Friday that she’s still studying Kavanaugh’s documents that “have been hidden from the public” and she’s nearing a decision.
“There’s some things that give me pause,” she said, adding that she’s “concerned about his opinions on dark money.”
Kavanaugh’s denial may do little to stanch the damaging trickle of revelations. The co-author of the New Yorker’s story, Ronan Farrow, has traveled to California in an attempt to persuade the woman behind the allegations to share her story, according to a source familiar with his reporting. The woman’s letter was channeled to Feinstein as well as to Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) through a Stanford Law School professor.
The White House has been acutely conscious from the outset of the need to portray Kavanaugh as a champion of women — and to have a stable of impressive women, Republicans and Democrats alike, ready to speak on his behalf — because of his likely role, if confirmed, as the high court’s new swing vote. They were prepared for Democratic charges that he was hostile to women and that if confirmed he was likely to strike down Roe v. Wade.
The conservative Judicial Crisis Network spent millions of dollars on ads featuring women and minorities backing Kavanaugh, and during his Senate confirmation hearings former female clerks were seated directly behind him — in a shot captured by television cameras and broadcast across the country.
Andrew Restuccia and Edward-Isaac Dovere contributed to this report.