Updated at 5:12 p.m. ET
Judge Brett Kavanaugh was defiant and visibly angry as he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday afternoon, rebutting earlier emotional testimony from the woman who has accused him of sexual assault, Christine Blasey Ford.
Departing from his prepared statement he had submitted to the committee the night before, Kavanaugh cast himself as the victim of a political smear campaign driven by partisan divide in the country.
“This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit,” Kavanaugh said, “fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record and revenge on behalf of the Clintons.”
Vigorously denying the allegations against him, he acknowledged that his nomination could be in jeopardy. But Kavanaugh said he was determined to press forward anyway.
“You may defeat me in the final vote, but you’ll never get me to quit. Never,” he emphasized.
Two other women have also come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct, and Kavanaugh said this has “destroyed my family and my good name.” He also pushed back against Democrats on the committee, arguing they have made a mockery of their responsibility in confirming Supreme Court justices.
“This confirmation process has become a national disgrace. … You have replaced ‘advice and consent’ with ‘search and destroy,’ ” Kavanaugh said.
At the end of his nearly 45-minute opening statement — twice the length of Ford’s — Kavanaugh was emphatic again in his denial: “I swear today under oath, before the Senate and the nation, before my family and God — I am innocent of this charge.”
The high-stakes hearing will help determine whether President Trump’s effort to remake the nation’s highest court with the conservative jurist to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy is successful. The testimony from both Ford and Kavanaugh — accuser and accused — comes after a year in which the rise and the cultural influence of the #MeToo movement has raised sensitivity to the accounts of sexual assault victims, a significant cultural shift since 1991 when Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas during his confirmation process.
Speaking Wednesday during a press conference, Trump said the allegations against Kavanaugh “are all false to me.” But the president indicated he would be watching Ford’s testimony to determine whether she is believable, and even suggested he might withdraw the nomination based on what occurred Thursday. In the same remarks, the president also defended Kavanaugh and criticized the multiple allegations against the judge as a “big, fat con job” perpetrated by Democrats trying to stop the confirmation of a conservative judge to the Supreme Court.
Kavanaugh’s initial indignant approach stood in stark contrast to Ford’s testimony earlier in the hearing. Fighting back tears, she described how Kavanaugh had allegedly sexually assaulted her at a house party when they were both in high school in the early 1980s.
“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 told the committee.
During his testimony, Kavanaugh eventually choked up multiple times. One point where he was especially emotional was in talking about the toll the accusations have taken on his family, particularly his two young daughters. He teared up as he said his 10-year-old daughter, when saying her bedtime prayers, said they should pray for Ford. “We mean no ill will,” Kavanaugh said, and he said he believed Ford may have been a victim of sexual assault at one point in her life — just not by him.
Ford said she didn’t remember all of the specifics such as the date or place of the alleged attack, which has led some to question the veracity of her claims. But, with her voice cracking, she did recall certain vivid details, adding: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense.”
Ford also said the details she does remember “about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget. They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me episodically as an adult.”
When she was 15 and Kavanaugh was 17, the two ended up at the same party. Ford said she had one beer, while Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, “were visibly drunk.” When she went upstairs to use the restroom, Kavanaugh and Judge pushed her into a bedroom and locked the door. Ford claimed Kavanaugh pushed her onto the bed and “began running his hands over my body and grinding his hips into me.”
“I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from screaming. This was what terrified me the most, and has had the most lasting impact on my life. It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me,” Ford said.
Kavanaugh admitted that he drank in high school — “sometimes I had too many beers. I liked beer. I still like beer” — but said he “did not drink beer to the point of blacking out, and I never sexually assaulted anyone.”
“If every American who drinks beer or drank beer in high school is suddenly presumed guilty of sexual assault in high school, it will be an ugly place in this country,” Kavanaugh said.
He also presented calendars he kept during high school — a practice he compared to a diary that he modeled after his father’s own habit — and said they showed he was often out of town during the summer in question when Ford alleges the assault occurred.
Ford also insisted she had no political agenda in coming forward with her accusations, telling lawmakers, “I am an independent person and I am no one’s pawn.”
The hearing got off to a tense start, exposing the deep partisan divides that have colored the accusations from Ford and other women. Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, first acknowledged that Kavanaugh, Ford and their families have “received vile threats” since the allegations became 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.
But then he went on to chastise the committee’s ranking member, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for a delay in giving the full committee the private letter setting forth the allegations against Kavanaugh that she received back in July from Ford, who is a constituent of Feinstein’s in California. Ford had first requested that her allegations remain private, but as she later told the committee, when it became clear her name would be public, she then told her story to The Washington Post.
Grassley also pointed out that many of the witnesses Ford has identified deny that the party in question took place. He also defended hiring an outside attorney to assist with questioning during Thursday’s hearing, saying he saw “no basis for complaint [from Democrats] other than just plain politics.” Rachel Mitchell is a sex crimes prosecutor from Arizona who has pushed for best practices in investigations to protect and serve victims of assault.
Feinstein pushed back during her subsequent remarks, pointing out that most sexual assaults go unreported and that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men will experience some form of sexual violence in their lives.
She warned colleagues that “the entire country is watching how we handle these allegations” and she criticized a “rush to judgment” on the allegations and quick push for confirmation, calling it a “real question of character for someone who is asking for a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.”
“This is not a trial for Dr. Ford. This is a job interview for Brett Kavanaugh,” Feinstein said, asking, “Is he the best we can do?”
The hearing pivoted somewhat awkwardly between Republican senators ceding their time to Mitchell, who questioned Ford about her past statements to the media and her specific memories about the circumstances of the alleged assault. Among her questions, the prosecutor tried to poke holes in Ford’s fear of flying, which Ford said was triggered by PTSD following the alleged assault. And Mitchell pressed Ford about the polygraph she took to back up her claims — and which Ford revealed she took outside Baltimore just after she had attended her grandmother’s funeral.
Ford explained how the incident had affected her throughout her life — from struggling academically during her undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to difficulty in forming relationships and friendships and ultimately pressing for a second front door during a remodel of her California home.
Near the end of her questioning, Mitchell reminded Ford that the other people she identified as being at the party have told the committee, under penalty of felony, that they did not remember the gathering or the incident in question.
“I don’t expect that P.J. and Leland would remember this evening,” Ford responded. “It was a very unremarkable party … because nothing happened to them that evening.”
Democratic senators used their time to largely reiterate their support for Ford, bemoan how she was being treated and criticize that a further probe by the FBI — as Ford has requested — was not undertaken.
“You have given America an amazing teaching moment,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told the college professor. “You have inspired and you have enlightened America. You have inspired and given courage to women to come forward, as they have done to every one of our offices and many other public places.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted he was also in the Senate during hearings that have drawn obvious parallels to this one — Hill’s testimony during the Thomas confirmation hearings.
Leahy said the Senate “failed” Hill back in 1991, and “I am concerned we are doing a lot less for these three women today.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a former district attorney and state attorney general, told Ford that, “I believe you, and I believe many Americans across this country believe you.”
When it was time to question Kavanaugh, Democrats pressed him about the contents of his high school calendars and yearbook quotations, which had references to drinking games and partying.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., grilled Kavanaugh on whether or not he would submit to an FBI investigation into the charges, as Democrats want. He said he would go along with whatever the committee wants — which the Republican majority does not think is necessary — but never said on record that he would call for an FBI investigation himself.
Many Republicans also ceded their questioning time to Mitchell, who forcefully pressed Kavanaugh on his denials and his drinking habits.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham became the first GOP senator to use his time to address Kavanaugh, and he angrily lashed out at Democrats on the committee for stonewalling the nomination.
“You’ve got nothing to apologize for,” Graham told Kavanaugh. “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics. And if you really wanted to know the truth, you sure as hell wouldn’t have done what you’ve done to this guy.”
Graham accused Democrats of simply trying to keep the vacant Supreme Court seat open until at least the midterm elections when they hope they might gain control of the Senate, exclaiming, “Boy, y’all want power. I hope you never get it.”
“This is not a job interview. This is hell,” Graham said, riffing on an earlier comment by Feinstein. “This is going to destroy the ability of good people to come forward because of this crap.”
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn also used his time after Graham to talk to Kavanaugh, comparing the allegations and questions that the Supreme Court nominee has had to face to the infamous 1954 McCarthy hearings that were purportedly aimed at rooting out communism in the U.S.
The Judiciary Committee released a timeline late on Wednesday night that indicated it had interviewed two men who believed they, not Kavanaugh, were the ones in the episode described by Ford.
Ford categorically denied that could have been possible, saying she was “100 percent” certain that it was Kavanaugh who allegedly assaulted her.
The psychology professor sometimes explained clinically how what happened to her more than three decades ago was “seared” in her memory — especially the laughter as Kavanaugh and Judge allegedly held her onto the bed, trapped.
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense.” Ford said.
Republicans, including President Trump, have called the claims part of a “smear” campaign against Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Thursday’s hearing on Capitol Hill drew widespread, passionate interest. Both actress Alyssa Milano — who has been an advocate for sexual assault survivors after speaking up about her own assault — and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are in the hearing room as guests of Democrats on the Judiciary Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
There are protesters and demonstrators next door in the Hart Senate Office Building — mostly women with some men, the majority of whom are opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination.
The committee could vote on the Kavanaugh nomination as early as Friday morning as Republican leaders appear eager to move ahead on the nomination and get it to the Senate floor quickly. Democrats have continued calling for delays to the hearing and the committee vote until the FBI investigates allegations against Kavanaugh.
NPR’s Scott Detrow and Art Silverman contributed to this report.