WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Thursday bluntly denied Christine Blasey Ford's allegation of sexual assault, blasting lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee for replacing advise and consent "with search and destroy" in a marathon hearing that stretched for nearly nine hours.
"My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed by vicious and false additional accusations," an angry Kavanaugh told the committee in a fiery opening statement that he said he had prepared himself on Wednesday night and showed only to a former clerk.
His performance pleased President Donald Trump, who was particularly happy with what he considered a strong opening statement, per a source familiar with his thinking.
Despite some speculation that the president may have been turned off by Kavanaugh’s outward display of emotion, the source said the president was unfazed, finding Kavanaugh’s reaction appropriate under the circumstances.
Minutes after the hearing ended, Trump voiced strong support for his nominee, echoing Kavanaugh's attack on "Democrats' search and destroy strategy."
Senate Republicans met Thursday night after the hearing.
Displaying a sharply different demeanor than he had in his previous testimony before the panel, Kavanaugh — who became emotional at times, choking back tears — said in his opening statement that the last two weeks have amounted to a calculated "political hit" against him, driven in part by hatred of Trump, because political opponents "couldn't take me out on the merits."
"This is a circus. The consequences will extend long past my nomination," he said. "I fear that the whole country will reap the whirlwind."
Kavanaugh, who walked in with his wife, Ashley, referred in opening testimony to his 10-year-old daughter, Liza, his voice breaking as he said she had urged him to "pray for the woman," in reference to Ford.
"I never sexually assaulted anyone. Not in high school. Not in college not ever," he said. “You may defeat me in the final vote, but you'll never get me to quit. Never."
"Before my family and God, I am innocent of this charge," he said.
Kavanaugh pointed to calendars that he kept as a teenager, including one from 1982, when the alleged assault occurred, that he suggests exonerate him because nothing in it indicates the gathering of people Ford has referred to.
Kavanaugh conceded that he liked to drink alcohol back then, when it was legal at the age of 18. “I drank beer with my friends. Almost everyone did. Sometimes I had too many beers. Sometimes others did. I liked beer. I still like beer. But I did not drink beer to the point of blacking out, and I never sexually assaulted anyone.”
Calling the proceedings a “national disgrace,” Kavanaugh referred to the confirmation process in notably partisan terms, saying opposition from “the Left” to his nomination was based on “revenge on behalf of the Clintons” and referring to “Borking,” as many conservatives describe the pushback that led to the Senate's failure to confirm Ronald Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.
Throughout Kavanaugh's opening statement, a few Republican senators visibly teared up, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Referring to a third public accuser represented by lawyer Michael Avenatti whose allegations surfaced Wednesday, Kavanaugh said: "The Swetnick thing is a joke. That thing is a farce."
"Would you like to say more about it?" asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., ranking member on the panel.
"No," replied Kavanaugh.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., asked Kavanaugh if he had ever been aggressive while drinking.
"Basically, no. I don’t know what you mean by that. What are you talking about? No, is the basic answer unless you’re asking about something I don’t know about," he said.
Ford and Kavanaugh both faced questions Thursday from Democratic senators and from Rachel Mitchell, an experienced sex crimes prosecutor from Maricopa County, Arizona, who the panel's Republicans hired to ask questions on their behalf. GOP senators ceded Mitchell all their allotted time to ask questions of Ford — but as the panel's questioning of Kavanaugh continued, Republicans began using that time themselves, to offer support to the nominee and to denounce Democratic pushback.
A visibly angry Graham attacked Democrats for the way the Kavanaugh allegations were handled. “If you wanted an FBI investigation, you could have come to us. What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open and hope you win in 2020,” Graham said, telling Kavanaugh: “You’ve got nothing to apologize for.”
“This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” added Graham. "This is a not a job interview. This is hell. This is going to destroy the ability of good people to come forward, because of this crap.”
Kavanaugh himself was notably combative as well, interrupting Democratic senators and occasionally replying to their questions with questions of his own: asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., whether he'd ever been drunk to the point that he did not remember all his actions, moments after she disclosed a family member's struggles with alcohol, he repeatedly responded by asking the same question of her.
He later apologized to Klobuchar for asking the question: "I’m sorry I did that," he said. "It's a tough process. I’m sorry about that."
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway both expressed satisfaction with Graham's defense:
Kavanaugh's appearance came shortly after Ford told the committee that she was there testifying about her allegations of assault by Kavanaugh when both were teenagers out of a sense of civic duty, "not because I want to be. I am terrified."
Ford answered questions from Democratic senators and from Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell for roughly four-and-a-half hours before the committee recessed ahead of testimony from Kavanaugh.
As the hearing began, she described the alleged assault that she said occurred during a house party in the summer of 1982. She had one beer that evening, she said, while Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge were “visibly drunk.” Speaking slowly, her voice cracking at times, Ford said that as she went upstairs, she was pushed into a bedroom, with the door locked behind her. She recounted how music playing in the bedroom was turned up louder by one of the young men.
“I was pushed onto the bed and Brett got on top of me. He began running his hands over my body and grinding into me. I yelled, hoping someone downstairs might hear me, and tried to get away from him, but his weight was heavy. 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 underneath my clothing,” Ford told the panel.
“I believed he was going to rape me,” Ford went on. "It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me. Both Brett and Mark were drunkenly laughing during the attack. They seemed to be having a good time. Mark was urging Brett on, and at times telling him to stop."
"The details 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," Ford said.
Throughout more than an hour of questioning, Mitchell asked Ford for details on a range of topics, from her fear of flying to her decision to hire an attorney and take a polygraph examination, including multiple questions about whether Ford had received any financial assistance, outside advice or guidance from Democratic sources.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, was sharply critical of Mitchell's forensic approach. "We all know that the prosecutor, even though this clearly is not a criminal proceeding, is asking Dr. Ford all kinds of questions [about] before and after, but basically not during the attack," said Hirono.
"The prosecutor should know that sexual assault survivors often do not remember peripheral information such as what happened before or after the traumatic event, and yet she will persist in asking these questions all to undermine the memory and basically the credibility of Dr. Ford," she added.
Later, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., delivered a similar assessment directly to Ford. "Dr. Ford, just so we can level-set, you know you are not on trial. You are not on trial," she said.
Asked by Feinstein what impact the alleged assault had on her life, Ford said that "anxiety, phobia and PTSD-like symptoms are the types of things I’ve been coping with," and that she "struggled academically" in college.
Feinstein asked Ford how she could be sure that Kavanaugh was her assailant.
"The same way that I'm sure that I'm talking to you right now. Basic memory functions," Ford said.
Feinstein then asked Ford if she was sure this could not be a case of mistaken identity.
"Absolutely not," Ford replied. Later, she said she was "100 percent" certain Kavanaugh had been her assailant.
Klobuchar asked Ford what it was that she'll never forget.
"The stairwell. The living room. The bedroom. The bed on the right side of the room ... the bathroom in close proximity. The laughter. The uproarious laughter. And the multiple attempts to escape. And the final ability to do so."
Ford said she first reached out to the office of Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and tipline for The Washington Post before Trump nominated Kavanaugh in early July, when she learned that he was on the president's shortlist for possible Supreme Court justice nominees. She then shared her experience in a letter to Feinstein and Eshoo in late July and spoke out publicly for the first time in a recent interview with the Post.
Most senators who left the hearing as the committee recessed for lunch and then ahead of Kavanaugh's testimony said they had no comment.
Some Republicans said they were sympathetic to Ford. Asked if she was credible, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said after the first half of her testimony that it was “too early to make those kinds of determinations, but she’s a good witness. Articulate. She’s an attractive person. But I think it’s a little early to make those kinds of determinations.”
Cornyn said after her testimony had ended that he "found no reason to find her not credible. There are obviously gaps in her story. Obviously we know that happens with people who are traumatized."
Graham said during an early break in Ford's testimony that while he "think[s] something happened to Dr. Ford," he remained skeptical.
“I really don’t know any more other than she can’t remember how she got there or how she left. That’s important to me. He says he didn’t do it. I’m looking for corroboration. It’s not an emotional decision. It’s a factual decision," he said "Unless something new comes forward you just have an emotional accusation and an emotional denial without corroboration.”
Asked by reporters why the committee had not subpoenaed witnesses such as Mark Judge to provide corroboration, Graham said only that Judge had provided a statement.
After Ford's half of the hearing ended, Graham slammed Democrats, criticizing them for not turning over information about the allegations sooner "so we can have something not this close to the midterms."
"[Ford] is just as much a victim of this as I think Brett Kavanaugh," he told reporters, "because somebody betrayed her trust and we know who she gave her letter to and the people who betrayed her trust — they owe her an apology."
The hearing comes after a week in which two other women have accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. Deborah Ramirez alleged in an article published by The New Yorker on Sunday night that while she and Kavanaugh both attended Yale University in the early 1980s, he pulled down his pants and exposed himself to her. Lawyer Michael Avenatti revealed a third accuser, Julie Swetnick, whom he represents, on Wednesday. The Senate Judiciary Committee has also probed at least one additional allegation of misconduct from an anonymous accuser, NBC News reported Wednesday.
Grassley said that the committee had tried to investigate the two other public allegations, but that attorneys for both accusers had not cooperated or made any attempt to "substantiate their claims." Referring to Feinstein's complaint that the panel is not pursuing the other allegations, he said the committee would "consider other issues other times."
The committee is currently scheduled to vote on Kavanaugh's nomination Friday morning.
Ford’s husband, Russell Ford, and children were not at the hearing, remaining at home in California, a spokesperson to Ford told NBC News, though at least 15 friends sat in the two rows behind her as she testified.
While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has projected confidence about Kavanaugh's confirmation chances, many GOP senators have not revealed how they planned to vote on his nomination, including Sens. Susan Collin, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who are considered potential swing votes. Several red state Democrats who could also be swing votes and help Kavanaugh's chances, have remained mum as well.