By Lawrence Hurley, Andrew Chung and Amanda Becker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A university professor on Thursday detailed her allegations that Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, sexually assaulted her 36 years ago, saying she thought he was going to rape and perhaps accidentally kill her, during a dramatic U.S. Senate hearing on Thursday.
Christine Blasey Ford, whose voice sometimes cracked with emotion, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing that could determine whether Kavanaugh will be confirmed to the lifetime job after a pitched political battle between Trump’s fellow Republicans and Democrats who oppose the nominee.
Kavanaugh was due to testify later in the day.
“With what degree of certainty do you believe Brett Kavanaugh assaulted you?” Democratic Senator Richard Durbin asked Ford.
“One hundred percent,” she replied.
The hearing, which has riveted Americans and intensified the political polarization in the United States, occurred against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault. Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual misconduct by two other women as well. He has denied all the allegations.
While some Republicans and Trump have said called the allegations by Ford and two other women against Kavanaugh part of a smear campaign, Ford told the committee, “I am an independent person and I am no pawn.”
Ford and Kavanaugh, a conservative federal appeals court judge picked by Trump in July for a lifetime job on the high court, were the only two witnesses scheduled.
“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 prepared testimony.
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 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, Mark Judge, were “drunkenly laughing during the attack.”
She said Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming, adding, “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.”
Under questioning from Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, Ford said she has suffered from claustrophobia and anxiety as a result of her experience and initially struggled when at college.
Feinstein also probed Ford on how certain she was that the alleged attacker was Kavanaugh.
“So you are telling us this could not be a case of mistaken identity?” Feinstein said.
“Absolutely not,” Ford replied.
Ford said in a response to Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy that her strongest memory of the incident was the “uproarious laughter between the two (Kavanaugh and Judge) and their having fun at my expense.”
Rachel Mitchell, the sex crimes prosecutor hired by Republicans to query Ford, opened her questioning by sympathizing with Ford. “The first thing that struck me from your statement this morning was that you are terrified. And I just wanted to let you know, I’m very sorry. That’s not right,” Ford said.
Mitchell then probed Ford’s account, questioning any gaps in her story.
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 or not they support Kavanaugh could determine his fate.
The committee could vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation on Friday, with a final Senate vote early next week.
Some Democrats have called on Kavanaugh to withdraw in light of the allegations.
The controversy has unfolded just weeks ahead of the Nov. 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.
Republican Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the committee, 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 the nominee and Ford had been through a terrible couple of weeks since Ford leveled her accusation.
“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 apologize to you both for the way you’ve been treated.”
Grassley said it was up to the Senate to assess the credibility of Kavanaugh and Ford.
Feinstein said 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.
Under questioning by Feinstein, Ford said she has suffered from claustrophobia and anxiety as a result of her experience and initially struggled when at college.
In his prepared testimony, Kavanaugh again “unequivocally and categorically” denied her 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.
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 parties so that they could be raped. She also said Kavanaugh was present at a 1982 party at which she was raped.
Trump chose Kavanaugh to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired effective in July.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Andrew Chung, Amanda Becker, Richard Cowan, Makini Brice and Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham and Kevin Drawbaugh