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Donald Trump

Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser Christine Blasey Ford testify in US Senate showdown

High drama as Supreme Court nominee and woman who claims he sexually assaulted her in the 1980s are questioned by senators

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2018, 9:51pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 September, 2018, 11:12am

University professor Christine Blasey Ford detailed her allegations that Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, sexually assaulted her 36 years ago during a momentous Senate hearing on Thursday that could determine whether he will be confirmed to the lifetime job after a pitched political battle.

The hearing, which riveted Americans and intensified the political polarisation in the United States, occurred against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault.

 

Ford’s account, delivered in a soft and sometimes halting voice, came as the Senate Judiciary Committee held an extraordinary session that Republicans hoped would salvage Kavanaugh’s chances of joining the high court. She showed no hesitancy in affirming the crucial question about the alleged incident, telling senators her certainty that Kavanaugh was her attacker was “100 percent”.

Ford’s tone was polite but firm in three hours of testimony during which repeated her accusations but offered no major new revelations. Rachel Mitchell, a sex crimes prosecutor from Arizona who asked questions of Ford on behalf of the committee’s Republican senators, all of whom are men, seemed to elicit no significant inconsistencies in Ford’s testimony.

When Ford finished, several women in the audience stood said loudly, “Thank you, Doctor Ford!” She appeared relieved and blew kisses to some of them. Democratic senators gathered around her for handshakes.

After a break, Kavanaugh was scheduled to follow Ford and give his response to the committee later in the afternoon.

Ford and Kavanaugh, a 53-year-old conservative federal appeal court judge picked by Trump in July for the position on the high court, were the only two witnesses scheduled to speak on Thursday.

Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation had seemed assured until Ford came forward and then other women emerged with additional allegations of sexual misconduct. He has denied all the allegations.

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“I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school,” Ford said, reading from her opening statement, her voice breaking with emotion.

Ford was seated at a table in the packed hearing room flanked by her lawyers, facing a bank of senators. Cameras from news photographers clicked as she entered the room and took her seat, smiling nervously.

Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University in California, said that a drunken Kavanaugh attacked her and tried to remove her clothing at a gathering of teenagers in Maryland when he was 17 years old and she was 15.

“Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes. He had a hard time because he was very inebriated and because I was wearing a one-piece bathing suit under my clothing. I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help,” Ford said, adding that Kavanaugh and a friend of his were “drunkenly laughing during the attack”.

Ford said that when she tried to yell out, he put his hand over her mouth. She said she was able to escape when Kavanaugh and the other boy she said was in the room fell off the bed.

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Republican Chuck Grassley, the committee chairman, said at the opening of the hearing that he wanted it to be “safe, comfortable and dignified for both of our witnesses”. He decried the “media circus” around the allegations against Kavanaugh and said that the nominee and Ford had been through a terrible couple of weeks since Ford’s accusation had become public.

“What they have endured ought to be considered by all of us as unacceptable and a poor reflection on the state of civility in our democracy,” Grassley said. “So I want to apologise to you both for the way you’ve been treated.”

“I lament how this hearing has come about,” he added, noting that Ford’s allegations emerged only after Kavanaugh’s original confirmation hearings earlier this month was over. Grassley said it was up to the Senate to assess the credibility of Kavanaugh and Ford.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, said in her opening statement that sexual violence is a serious problem in the United States “and one that goes largely unseen”.

She thanked Ford for coming forward and referred to the #MeToo movement.

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“What I find most inexcusable is this rush to judgment, the unwillingness to take these kinds of allegations at face value and look at them for what they are: a real question of character for someone who is asking for a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court,” Feinstein said.

Feinstein said that Ford should be treated with more respect than Anita Hill, who in 1991 accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Thomas was ultimately confirmed by the Senate and still sits on the court.

Ford, who before the hearing had not spoken or appeared publicly, gave her account of an incident in which she said Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in 1982 at a gathering of teenagers in Maryland when both of them were in high school.

Ford said Kavanaugh trapped her on a bed and tried undressing her, grinding his body against her and muffling her cries with her hand. “I believed he was going to rape me,” she said in her opening statement.

Ford has said Kavanaugh friend Mark Judge was also in the room when she was assaulted. Judge has said he does not remember the incident and has declined to appear before the panel.

During a break in the hearing, some of Kavanaugh’s strongest supporters gave no indications of wavering.

“You need more than an accusation for evidence. You need corroboration. That’s what’s missing here,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas.

Democrats rallied strongly behind Ford.

Asked by Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont for her strongest memory of the alleged incident, Ford cited the two boys’ “laughter – the uproarious laughter between the two and they’re having fun at my expense”.

Later, asked by Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, how certain was she that Kavanaugh had been her attacker, Ford said that her certainty was “100 percent”.

Ford, a 51-year-old California psychology professor, spoke carefully and deliberately, using her scientific expertise at one point to describe how a brain might remember details of events decades later. The memory of the boys’ laughter was “indelible in the hippocampus,” she said, adding, “It’s locked in there.”

She also recounted how the alleged attack altered her life, describing anxiety and claustrophobia that prompted her to demand adding a second front door when her home was remodelled. She also described nervousness while flying.

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In his prepared statement before his appearance in the afternoon, Kavanaugh again “unequivocally and categorically” denied Ford’s allegation, as well as “other false and uncorroborated accusations” by his other accusers.

“Sexual assault is horrific. It is morally wrong. It is illegal. It is contrary to my religious faith. And it contradicts the core promise of this nation that all people are created equal and entitled to be treated with dignity and respect,” Kavanaugh said.

Supreme Court appointments must be confirmed by the Senate, and Trump’s fellow Republicans control the chamber by a narrow 51-49 margin.

That means that a handful of moderate Republican senators who have not announced whether they support Kavanaugh could determine his fate.

The committee could vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation on Friday, with a final vote by the entire Senate early next week.

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Some Democrats have called on Kavanaugh to withdraw in light of the allegations.

The controversy has unfolded just weeks ahead of the November 6 congressional elections in which Democrats are trying to seize control of Congress from Trump’s fellow Republicans.

Kavanaugh’s confirmation would cement conservative control of the high court as Trump moves to shift it and the broader federal judiciary to the right.

Two other women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, have also accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in the 1980s.

Ramirez accused Kavanaugh of exposing himself during a drunken dormitory party during the 1983-84 academic year when both attended Yale University.

Swetnick, whose allegations emerged on Wednesday, said she witnessed efforts by Kavanaugh and others to get girls drunk at high school parties so that they could be raped. She also said Kavanaugh was present at a 1982 party at which she was raped.

Trump and some other Republicans described the allegations as part of a last-minute “smear” campaign, though the president indicated that he would be paying close attention to the hearing. “I can always be convinced,” Trump said on Wednesday.

Trump chose Kavanaugh to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired in July.

Reuters and Associated Press