Twenty-six years after she won a Senate seat in the “Year of the Woman,” Dianne Feinstein stands as a central figure in deciding the fate of Brett M. Kavanaugh, whose Supreme Court nomination is in jeopardy after a woman accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school.
Feinstein has been a lightning rod for loud criticism from President Trump and quieter frustration from some fellow Democrats after she disclosed she received a letter in July from the woman that she did not share with Senate colleagues and federal law enforcement until last week.
The episode has put the 85-year-old senator from California, who is seeking a sixth term in November, in the middle of a fast-moving and explosive cultural, political and social firestorm charged by forces of the #MeToo movement and Trump’s divisive presidency.
As Kavanaugh forges ahead and denies the allegation, Feinstein is under some of the most intense scrutiny of her career, with Trump bluntly accusing her Tuesday of timing her bombshell revelation to sink his nominee.
“When Senator Feinstein sat with Judge Kavanaugh for a long period of time — a long, long meeting — she had this letter. Why didn’t she bring it up?” Trump said. “Why didn’t the Democrats bring it up then? Because they obstruct and because they resist. That’s the name of their campaign against me.”
Now, Feinstein faces a legacy-defining moment as one of the most powerful women in the country and the first to hold several prominent posts. As the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Feinstein is helping her party prepare for an unprecedented public hearing scheduled for Monday at which Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, have been invited to testify.
The hearing was cast into uncertainty late Tuesday, as the lawyers for Ford said in a letter to the Judiciary Committee that an FBI investigation of the alleged sexual assault should come first. Feinstein quickly issued a statement saying the Senate should respect Ford’s wishes and “delay this hearing.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) disputed that the FBI would need to investigate before Ford appeared before the committee and said in a statement: “The invitation for Monday still stands.”
As she plots the next steps, Feinstein is dealing with questions about her recent ones — most notably her decision to wait weeks before sharing Ford’s letter, only issuing a cryptic statement last Thursday when word surfaced of its existence. The revelation came almost a week after Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings wrapped up.
“I will tell you that I’m glad we’re going to have a hearing and get to the bottom of it. It’d have been nice to have it done before,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is running for reelection in a state that Trump won handily in 2016. “But you know, I wasn’t in her shoes.”
Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee were tepid about Feinstein. “She did her best,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (Hawaii). “I can’t fault her,” said Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.). “Extremely difficult circumstances,” noted Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.)
Privately, some Democratic senators wished that Feinstein had come to them sooner with the allegation, according to a Democrat with direct knowledge of internal Senate dynamics. The Democrat spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
It was late July when Feinstein received the letter from Ford detailing the allegations from decades ago against Kavanaugh. Ford is a constituent of Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), who relayed the letter to Feinstein.
Ford was insistent on confidentiality. It was not until a private meeting last Wednesday, after a report by the Intercept, that Feinstein revealed the letter to her Democratic colleagues on the Judiciary Committee. In a Washington Post article published Sunday, Ford told her story publicly for the first time.
In the Post article, Ford alleged that Kavanaugh drunkenly pinned her to a bed on her back, groped her and put his hand over her mouth to stifle her screams at a house party in the early 1980s, when the two were in high school.
Feinstein said she sought to honor Ford’s request for privacy, and Ford’s attorney Debra Katz said she believes Feinstein did that. On Tuesday, Feinstein said she explored ways to discreetly investigate the accusation.
“We were looking for a way to get it investigated by an outside investigator,” she told reporters. Her spokesman, Tom Mentzer, said her staff spoke with the Ethics Committee about whether the Judiciary Committee could hire an independent, outside counsel to assist an unnamed individual.
Officials advised the aides that the Senate Rules Committee would have to approve such a request, Mentzer said, which would have meant alerting leading Republican senators and therefore running afoul of Ford’s request to remain confidential.
“I did not know whether this woman would come forward or not,” Feinstein said.
Republicans remain determined to confirm Kavanaugh, and in their effort to win the war of public opinion they have singled out Feinstein, and by extension Democrats, as villains, repeatedly arguing that they are deliberately roiling the proceedings as Kavanaugh’s nomination process reaches its final stage.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Tuesday that Feinstein “decided to spring it at the end,” referring to her simply as the ranking member of the committee.
“I don’t know why she sat on that letter as long as she did,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.) the third-ranking Republican senator. “It just seems to me, at least, that if these allegations, if they took them seriously, that they would have made more of an attempt to get this into the discussion” during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.
At the same time, Feinstein’s decision to keep the accusation away from her own party, at a moment when liberals were applying immense pressure to defeat Kavanaugh and moderate Democratic senators were debating whether to support him, has triggered second-guessing among Democrats. Now, some lawmakers simply want to turn the page.
“I’m not going to go back and revisit that,” said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who represents a Republican state and is up for reelection in 2020. “I just think we need to deal with where we are now, not where we might have been.”
Even before Ford’s accusation, Feinstein’s navigation of the Kavanaugh nomination had stirred controversy. After she apologized to Kavanaugh for the protesters in the room during his confirmation hearings, Brian Fallon, the head of a liberal anti-Kavanaugh group, called it “ridiculous.”
Feinstein was first elected to the Senate in 1992, when the number of women elected to the Senate tripled in voting the year after Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite allegations that he had sexually harassed a subordinate, Anita Hill.
Feinstein’s challenger this November is Kevin de León, a state lawmaker running to her left who finished a distant second in California’s all-party primary. He slammed Feinstein last week for “failure of leadership” and questioned why she waited to give information about the accusation to the FBI.
The Democrat familiar with internal Senate dynamics said that in the meeting when Feinstein briefed her Democratic colleagues on the letter last week, they swiftly encouraged her to refer it to federal authorities. She did so that day.
Some Democrats have privately questioned how much progress had been made on the Judiciary Committee even now, as a woman — Feinstein — sits as the ranking Democrat. They cited Hill’s statement last week calling for the panel to develop a new process to investigate complaints of sexual harassment and assault.
Feinstein has been a magnet for attention on Capitol Hill this week. While her aides have sought to shuttle her efficiently to and from meetings and votes, she has stopped to speak with crowds of reporters patiently, sometimes putting her aides on edge, as Feinstein, the oldest member of the Senate, has been known to make comments that sometimes stir confusion .
As she fielded questions outside the Senate chamber Tuesday, an aide reminded her she had two votes to attend, but she kept speaking with reporters. Seconds later, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) strolled by and intervened.
“Dianne, did you vote?” he asked. She said she hadn’t, and she entered the Senate chamber with him.
Feinstein also created some uncertainty with her comments Tuesday about whether she believed that Ford’s account was fully credible. She told reporters by day’s end, “I believe she is credible.”
Tom Hamburger, Gabriel Pogrund, Seung Min Kim and Erica Werner contributed to this report.