WASHINGTON — Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans said Tuesday that they had hired an outside attorney to question Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her, at the committee's hearing on Thursday.
For several hours after the announcement, they would not reveal the lawyer's identity — only her gender — drawing criticism from Democrats and women's advocates. Late Tuesday night, they identified her as Rachel Mitchell, an experienced sex crimes prosecutor in Maricopa County, Arizona.
"The goal is to de-politicize the process and get to the truth, instead of grandstanding and giving senators an opportunity to launch their presidential campaigns," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee's chairman, said in a statement. "I’m very appreciative that Rachel Mitchell has stepped forward to serve in this important and serious role."
Still, Mitchell's hiring does address a political need for the GOP majority. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who is not on the committee, said Tuesday it would not be wise for Republican senators on the panel — all of whom are men — to ask questions themselves during the hearing. "Somebody will do something that you guys will run 24/7 and inadvertently somebody will do something that’s insensitive," he told reporters. "I would not be wanting to ask questions about something like this. I’m glad they're going to get outside counsel."
Asked by NBC's Kasie Hunt on Tuesday what message it sends to the nation that there are no Republican women on the panel, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said: "We're looking for the truth here. I don't think because you happen to be a male you're disqualified from listening to evidence — from listening to the evidence and making a decision based upon the evidence."
He added, "As I said earlier, and I think you already know, we have hired a female assistant to go on staff and to ask these questions in a respectful and professional way. We want this hearing to be handled very professionally, not a political sideshow like you saw put on by the Democrats when they were questioning Judge Kavanaugh."
Democrats slammed the decision. “It is going against everything I’ve seen for 44 years," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who serves on the Judiciary Committee. "They’re not following normal procedure."
"This is not a criminal prosecution. It’s a Senate hearing," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. "I’m amazed they would not ask questions themselves."
Late Tuesday, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office released a statement lauding Mitchell's tenure as chief of the Special Victims Division, saying she is "professional, fair, objective, and has a caring heart for victims."
"The American people can be confident that Rachel Mitchell’s experience as a conscientious prosecutor, trained to seek justice, protect victims, and pursue truth will assist the Senate Judiciary Committee in performing its important task," Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said in the statement.
In a conference call with reporters arranged by Senate Democrats, sexual assault victim advocates and experts denounced Grassley’s approach to the hearing.
They were especially critical of Grassley’s rejection of Ford’s preference to be questioned by senators and not an outside counsel, as well as his early refusal to provide the name of the female sexual assault prosecutor hired to handle questioning.
According to these experts, Grassley also had not heeded Ford’s request that outside sexual violence trauma experts be consulted in advance of the hearing.
“Dr. Ford is not on trial. She is a survivor of sexual assault who has chosen to go public in the national interest,” said Kiersten Stewart, policy director at Futures Without Violence. “We are really dismayed” she said, adding that “survivors all across the country are watching.”
Kristina Rose, executive director of End Violence Against Women International, said the current arrangement “creates the wrong environment for any real fact-finding, and clearly gives the impression she is on trial for wrongdoing.”
All of them stressed Grassley could still change course. “There is a deep toolbox available” to conduct further investigation as Ford has repeatedly requested, said Rose.
Meanwhile, both President Donald Trump and leading Hill Republicans continued to take a sharper tone Tuesday on the accusations against Kavanaugh.
In New York, Trump accused Democrats of playing a "con game" on the Kavanaugh allegations.
"I think it’s horrible what the Democrats have done. It’s a con game they’re playing," Trump told reporters during a bilateral meeting with the president of the Republic of Colombia in New York during the United Nations General Assembly. "They’re really con artists."
The president said that he had watched the Fox News interview with Kavanaugh and his wife on Monday night and described his nominee as "one of the highest quality people," calling the charges from both women who have publicly accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when they were students together "unsubstantiated."
"The second accuser has nothing," Trump said of Deborah Ramirez, who has accused Kavanaugh of exposing himself while both were in college. "The second accuser doesn’t even know. She thinks maybe it could've been him, maybe not. She admits that she was drunk. She admits time lapses. There are time lapses."
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday in an interview on Fox News that the allegations are a "left wing conspiracy."
“You’ve got a lot of Democrats, consultants, Hollywood folks and others of the left wing in cahoots, coddling each other, definitely coaching each other on this,” said Conway.
Trump's remarks came shortly after White House press secretary Sanders suggested that the president was open to having Ramirez testify on Thursday along with Ford and Kavanaugh.
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.
In an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” host George Stephanopoulos asked White House press secretary Sarah Sanders if the president would want Ramirez to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee at Thursday’s hearing.
“Certainly we would be open to that and that process could take place on Thursday,” said Sanders.
“The president said a number of times that these individuals should be heard,” she also said. Trump himself will speak to reporters at a rare news conference Wednesday at 5 p.m. ET, on the eve of the hearing, Sanders tweeted Tuesday.
An aide to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday said that the GOP staff have asked Ramirez to "share any additional evidence" about her accusations. A source familiar with the process confirmed to NBC News that Senate Judiciary staffers had a call with Kavanaugh to interview him about Ramirez’s allegation, which Kavanaugh again denied.
Ramirez's attorney, John Clune, responded on Twitter that the preference remained an FBI investigation.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, a possible swing vote, suggested Tuesday that she would be in favor of an FBI probe, which Trump would need to order.
Asked if there should be an FBI investigation into Kavanaugh’s past, she said it would “sure clear up all the questions, wouldn’t it?”
The Thursday hearing will began with opening statements from the leaders of the panel followed by an opening statement from Ford with no time limit, Republican and Democratic Judiciary Committee sources said Tuesday night. There will then be one round of questions from senators — though they will be able to give their time to another senator or outside counsel. After a break, Kavanaugh will testify and offer an opening statement with no time limit, followed by the same question format.
Kavanaugh appeared for his first on-camera interview about the allegations on Fox News on Monday night in which he rejected them and defended himself with his wife, Ashley, by his side.
"The truth is I’ve never sexually assaulted anyone, in high school or otherwise," Kavanaugh said. Ford has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when both were in high school. "I did not have sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter," Kavanaugh said. "The girls from the schools I went to and I were friends."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., continued to blame Democrats Tuesday morning for how they’ve handled the confirmation process and defended Kavanaugh against the allegations. “This is America we're talking about," he said. "We're supposed to uphold innocence. Everyone deserves better than this — everyone — not just Judge Kavanaugh, everyone."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told reporters Tuesday that if the sexual assault accusation against Kavanaugh is enough to stop him from heading to the Supreme Court, then “God help us all around here.”
Graham also said that if nothing new emerges from the Thursday hearing, then he plans to vote in favor of Kavanaugh's nomination.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., told reporters Tuesday afternoon of Kavanaugh that “accusations are being made about things that didn't happen, and I think it's just very unfortunate.”
When asked if he believed that the women were making up the allegations, Inhofe said, “They had a little help, I have a feeling.”
The Judiciary Committee said Tuesday it had rescheduled the panel's vote on Kavanaugh's nomination for 9:30 a.m. Friday, the day after the hearing.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., blasted Republicans for scheduling a vote on Kavanaugh's nomination before holding Thursday's hearing.
“For Republicans to schedule a Friday vote on Brett Kavanaugh today, two days before Dr. Blasey Ford has had a chance to tell her story, is outrageous," she said. “First Republicans demanded Dr. Blasey Ford testify immediately. Now Republicans don’t even need to hear her before they move ahead with a vote. It’s clear to me that Republicans don’t want this to be a fair process.”
GOP senators who left their weekly luncheon Tuesday said that they had been told to be prepared for the full Senate to stay in session over the weekend to finish work on Kavanaugh's nomination, with a potential plan to hold a final confirmation vote on the floor as soon as Tuesday.
“I plan to be here until next Tuesday,” Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., told NBC News. “If you plan to do something before next Tuesday I wouldn’t plan on it.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday that the president expected a confirmation vote on Kavanaugh soon “because that's what's supposed to happen," she told Fox. "In every single one of these instances where someone is nominated, they go before, they have a hearing and then the senators vote on it. That's what's supposed to happen and that's what the president expects to happen.”
McConnell had previously set a goal of confirming Kavanaugh by Oct. 1, when the Supreme Court's new term begins.