By LISA MASCARO, ALAN FRAM and LAURIE KELLMAN
WASHINGTON (AP) — Christine Blasey Ford declared on Thursday that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her as he and a friend shared “uproarious laughter” in a locked room at a high-school gathering in the 1980s, recounting her allegations to the Senate Judiciary Committee and a riveted country in a drama that threatens to derail Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.
Her account, delivered in a soft and sometimes-halting voice, came as the Judiciary panel began an extraordinary session that Republicans hope will let them 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.”
The conservative jurist’s Senate confirmation had seemed assured until Ford came forward and then other women emerged with additional allegations of sexual misconduct. Kavanaugh, now 53, has denied them all and awaited his own chance to testify later Thursday. It has become less clear that Republican leaders will be able to hold GOP senators behind President Donald Trump’s nominee.
In an election-season battle that’s being waged along a polarized country’s political and cultural fault lines, Trump and most Republicans have rallied behind Kavanaugh. They’ve accused Ford and the other women of making unproven allegations and have questioned why they’d not publicly revealed them for decades.
But with televisions throughout the country tuned to the hearing — senators among those riveted to their screens — it was unclear how the lawmakers who will ultimately decide Kavanaugh’s fate will assess Ford’s credibility.
Ford has 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.
Democrats have rallied strongly behind Ford.
Asked by Patrick Leahy of Vermont for her strongest memory of the alleged incident, Ford mentioned the two boys’ “laughter — the uproarious laughter between the two and they’re having fun at my expense.”
The 51-year-old California psychology professor spoke carefully and deliberately during the hearing, using scientific terminology at one point to describe how a brain might remember details of events decades later. The boys’ laughter was “indelible in the hippocampus,” she said.
Ford has said Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge was also in the room. Judge has said he doesn’t remember the incident and has declined to appear before the panel.
Ford told the top committee Democrat, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, that she’d “agonized daily” over coming forward about the alleged decades-old attack. She said she feared the personal consequences would be akin to “jumping in front of a train.”
In fact, both she and Kavanaugh have received death threats.
When Feinstein asked her how she could be sure that Kavanaugh was the attacker, Ford said, “The same way I’m sure I’m talking to you right now.” Later, she told Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that her certainty was “100 percent.”
The 11 Republicans on the Judiciary committee — all men — let Rachel Mitchell, a veteran sex-crimes prosecutor from Arizona, ask their questions. She began by expressing sympathy for Ford, who’d said she was “terrified” to testify, saying, “I just wanted to let you know, I’m very sorry. That’s not right.”
Mitchell led Ford through a detailed recollection of the events she says occurred on the day of the alleged incident. But under the committee’s procedures, the career prosecutor was limited to five minutes at a time, interspersed between Democrats’ questions, creating a choppy effect as she tried piecing together the story.
Before she began, the committee chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa defended the Republicans’ handling of the confirmation proceedings so far. Feinstein criticized Republicans who have rejected Democratic demands to slow Kavanaugh’s confirmation process and let the FBI investigate all the allegations, saying, “What I don’t understand is the rush to judgment.”
Kavanaugh and Ford were the only witnesses invited to testify before the panel. But the conservative jurist is facing allegations of sexual misconduct from other women as well, forcing Republican leaders to struggle to keep support for him from eroding.
Grassley complained that lawyers for other accusers have not provided information to his panel and said, “The committee can’t do an investigation if attorneys are stonewalling.”
Republicans acknowledged that much was riding on Kavanaugh’s performance. Even Trump, who fiercely defends his nominee, said he would be watching and was “open to changing my mind.”
Kavanaugh’s teetering grasp on winning confirmation was evident when Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, expressed concern, in a private meeting with senators Wednesday, about a new, third accuser, according to a person with knowledge of the gathering. Republicans control the Senate 51-49 and can lose only one vote. Collins is among the few senators who’ve not made clear how they’ll vote.
Collins walked into that meeting carrying a copy of Julie Swetnick’s signed declaration, which included fresh accusations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh and his friend form high school, Mark Judge.
Collins said senators should hear from Judge. After being told Judge has said he doesn’t want to appear before the committee, she reminded her colleagues that the Senate has subpoena power.
Republicans are pushing to seat Kavanaugh before the November midterms, when Senate control could fall to the Democrats and someone nominated by Trump could have even greater difficulty. Kavanaugh’s ascendance to the high court could help lock in a conservative majority for a generation, shaping dozens of rulings on abortion, regulation, the environment and more.