Republicans are aggressively challenging the credibility of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s initial accuser, a turnabout from days of treating Christine Blasey Ford gingerly after her emotional testimony alleging sexual assault decades ago.
Spearheaded by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the blistering campaign to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court includes personal attacks on the women who have leveled claims against the judge, including the release Tuesday of a salacious statement that purports to describe the sex life of another accuser, Julie Swetnick.
The effort is shattering Senate norms at a critical moment for Kavanaugh, and it signals that the GOP is embracing the tactics of President Trump, who mocked Ford at a political rally Tuesday night days after calling her credible.
The strategy has drawn condemnation, and it has even raised questions about whether Republicans have violated a provision of the Violence Against Women Act by disclosing Swetnick’s purported sexual preferences.
But party leaders are undaunted, concluding that a scorched-earth strategy is the most effective way to defend Kavanaugh and rally enough support to confirm him to the nation’s highest court.
“The public ought to know,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said in defending the release of the statement Tuesday about Swetnick, who has accused Kavanaugh of misconduct.
Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans released the explicit statement from Dennis Ketterer, who said he was involved in a brief relationship with Swetnick in 1993.
In a separate release, Grassley sent Ford’s lawyers a letter on Tuesday citing an unnamed former boyfriend who provided information he said raised questions about comments Ford made under oath. The information first emerged publicly in a Fox News report.
The GOP actions are in line with Trump’s strategy throughout his presidency and during his campaign. Confronted by accusations of misconduct and scrutiny over controversial comments and decisions, the president has relentlessly counterpunched.
Republicans have also decided that an impassioned fight over Kavanaugh will help them retain control of the Senate in the November midterm elections, by energizing conservatives in the red states expected to decide the majority and reminding GOP voters of their party allegiances, as some weigh whether to cross over to support Democratic candidates.
Democrats criticized the actions, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) accusing her Republican colleagues of engaging “in a smear campaign” against Ford, while outside the Capitol, activists expressed their outrage. “They’re trying to make survivors into perpetrators,” said Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women, a liberal group.
Kavanaugh’s nomination was cast into doubt after he and Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Kavanaugh offered a defiant repudiation of her allegations that he sexually assaulted her when both were in high school.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a key swing vote and a member of the panel, forced the Senate to delay a vote on Kavanaugh for up to a week so the FBI could reopen its background investigation. Flake and a handful of other senators hold the key to Kavanaugh’s fate, with Republicans holding a narrow 51-49 advantage.
“Unfortunately, all the rules that ordinarily govern background investigations have been broken,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the second-ranking Republican, blaming Democrats. “We’re in uncharted territory.”
In his letter to Ford’s attorneys on Tuesday, Grassley renews requests for evidence relevant to her claim. In the letter, which The Washington Post obtained, Grassley expresses worry about information from a longtime boyfriend who said he witnessed her coaching a friend on a polygraph exam.
“When asked under oath in the hearing whether she’d ever given any tips or advice to someone who was planning on taking a polygraph, Dr. Ford replied, ‘Never.’ This statement raises specific concerns about the reliability of her polygraph examination results,” Grassley writes in the letter.
Ford’s lawyers responded that they would provide the appropriate records to the FBI, when she is interviewed. Her lawyers said she had not heard from the agency about an interview.
The friend Ford was accused of coaching, former FBI agent Monica McLean, said in a statement that the ex-boyfriend’s claims were false.
Trump has escalated his criticism of Ford. After initially refraining from calling her allegations into question, he sought to raise doubt about them on social media and then on Tuesday mocked her account at a rally in Mississippi, criticizing her for not remembering some details.
While Trump faced criticism from members of his own party Wednesday, including Flake, McConnell has adopted a different role in the campaign to confirm Kavanaugh. In what has become a daily ritual, the Republican leader delivers angry speeches on the Senate floor, complaining about rumors and the Democrats’ treatment of Kavanaugh.
After Ford’s allegation, McConnell said Wednesday, “a literal mudslide of wild, uncorroborated accusations has poured out — each more outlandish than the last. And this mudslide has been actively embraced, urged on, and capitalized upon by Democrats inside this chamber.”
McConnell has attacked the credibility of Swetnick and relished criticizing her attorney, Michael Avenatti, who also represents Stormy Daniels, the adult-film star who has engaged in legal battles with Trump over a deal that paid her to keep quiet about an alleged affair.
A news release Wednesday from the Republicans was titled, “Dems Embrace Avenatti Circus Allegations.”
Swetnick has said in an affidavit that Kavanaugh was present at a house party in 1982 where she alleges she was the victim of a gang rape. Kavanaugh strongly denies the claim.
Ketterer said Swetnick once told him that she sometimes enjoyed group sex with multiple men. He said she never said anything about being sexually assaulted or raped, nor did she ever mention Kavanaugh.
Swetnick’s attorney called the statement “bogus and outrageous.” Ruth Glenn, the chief executive of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said Thursday that it ran afoul of a provision in the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.
“This disregard for the Rule and most shockingly, decency, will not only have an impact on Ms. Swetnick, but for all of those who must decide whether to come forward with the violence they have endured, today or in the future,” Glenn said.
Defending the release Wednesday, Grassley said, “I don’t know what it added, but just like we get a lot of accusations on both sides, we just try to follow them where they lead us,” he said.
Cornyn, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said that he didn’t release the statement or know who did. A spokesman for the Judiciary Committee Republicans did not respond to a request for comment on who decided to release the statement.
“The kindest thing I can say about some of this stuff is it’s unprecedented,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.
McConnell has been eager to restore order to this confirmation process and is also keenly aware of the potential political implications of the Kavanaugh nomination, with the midterms coming up, according to people familiar with his thinking.
Democrats are defending 10 Senate seats in states Trump won in 2016. Republicans have been eager to inject polarizing issues into those campaigns, reasoning that energizing conservatives and keeping voters in their partisan corners will result in success.
Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), running in states Trump won by 43 and 36 percentage points, respectively, have not said how they will vote, even as their colleagues have come out against Kavanaugh.
An NPR/“PBS NewsHour”/Marist national poll released Wednesday showed that the Democratic enthusiasm advantage had shrunk. Democrats said their own data showed the Kavanaugh nomination had not given Republicans a dramatic edge. They contended that Republicans’ aggressive campaign to discredit his accusers would exact a long-term political cost.
“The most lasting impact of the Kavanaugh nomination will be the deepening of the perceptions many women have that the party of Trump is an anti-woman party,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.
As many Republicans harden their rhetoric, some GOP senators are blaming the tone of the Kavanaugh standoff on the Senate as a whole.
“I think this whole thing has been a grotesque carnival. It’s been a circus without a tent. It’s been an intergalactic freak show,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.).
Seung Min Kim, Mike DeBonis and Paul Kane contributed to this report.