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In defending Kavanaugh, Collins went further than Trump

Analysis: Going further than President Trump, the Maine senator ended the fight over Brett Kavanaugh's nomination by saying she didn't believe his accuser.

WASHINGTON — Sen. Susan Collins closed hard.

In a dramatic Senate floor endorsement that essentially sealed Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation Friday, the Maine Republican said she ultimately didn't believe Christine Blasey Ford's allegation that Kavanaugh tried to rape her when they were in high school.

Ford's claims, she said, "fail to meet the more-likely-than-not standard."

Though Trump ridiculed Ford from the stump in Mississippi Tuesday and has long bemoaned the treatment of Kavanaugh by Democrats and the national news media, he never delivered the killer sound bite that he simply didn't believe Ford.

Collins went further than Trump — and, because she was more measured, her words were more cutting.

They also seem destined to bring her a challenge from Democrats. Already, donors have collected roughly $2 million to support a future Collins opponent.

For now, though, Collins is an unlikely heroine for the right — a senator who opposed Trump on immigration, Obamacare and abortion restrictions and then saved his Supreme Court nominee. Not only did she provide the key vote, but she locked in the attention of the nation and made the case for him.

Collins sought to systematically dissect a series of arguments against Kavanaugh, most notably the sexual assault allegations that delayed his final confirmation vote and placed the battle smack in the middle of a cultural war over misconduct by powerful men. Her words were made even more forceful by the fact that they were coming from a moderate Republican woman from New England who has long been a strong voice against sexual harassment and assault.

"Every person — man or woman — who makes a charge of sexual assault deserves to be heard and treated with respect," she said. "The #MeToo movement is real. It matters. It is needed. And it is long overdue."

But, she said, that doesn't require the Senate to presume Kavanaugh was guilty just because he was accused.

"In evaluating any given claim of misconduct, we will be ill served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be," she said. "We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy."

As if to answer Kavanaugh critics who have noted that the Republican roster on the Judiciary Committee — as well as the GOP contingent at Kavanaugh press conferences — are all-male, Republican Sens. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi sat directly behind Collins as she spoke, ensuring they were captured in the frame of the chamber's video camera.

As much as Kavanaugh's nomination has been divisive for the nation, Collins' speech was unifying for the GOP.

At Trump's White House, aides cheered when she concluded by saying she would vote to confirm Kavanaugh. President George H.W. Bush, as different from Trump as any Republican in substance, style and temperament, praised Collins for her "political courage" and "principled leadership."

She framed her case for Kavanaugh by trying to knock down the reasons to vote against him — infusing it with a call for the Senate to return to a more civil era of judicial confirmations — and delivered rebukes to Democrats who had vowed to defeat any Trump nominee even before Justice Anthony Kennedy announced that he would resign from the high court.

"Senator Collins did not take her position lightly, presented a well thought-out and reasoned argument with a foundation based on her vast knowledge of the law and judicial process," said Ron Bonjean, who helped shepherd Justice Neil Gorsuch's nomination through the Senate. " At the same time, she did an effective job addressing the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh. No one can say she didn’t take her job seriously at this pivotal moment in American history.”

Following her speech, Collins told reporters she'd made up her mind the night before, after reviewing an FBI report on interviews conducted in connection with Ford's allegations and those made by a Yale classmate, Deborah Ramirez. Implicit in her remarks Friday was the sense — seemingly at odds with others in her party — that she would have found a credible allegation of sexual assault against Kavanaugh to be disqualifying.

"Believe me, I struggled with it for a long time because I was — did not want — I was very disturbed by the allegations that were put forth, and I found Christine Ford's testimony to be very heart-wrenching, painful and compelling," she said after leaving the floor. "But there was a lack of corroborating evidence no matter where you looked among all three people she names as present at the party."

If Collins wrestled with her verdict, she was anything but ambiguous in rendering it.

She went through many of the criticisms of Kavanaugh’s record and philosophy, noting why she thought each was off base. But ironically, as she lamented the partisan division in the country, she did not mention Kavanaugh’s admittedly intemperate testimony before the Judiciary Committee last week, which included his allegation that he was the victim of a conspiracy by Senate Democrats, the Clintons and those upset by the 2016 election.

“It is particularly worrisome that the Supreme Court, the institution that most Americans see as the principal guardian of our shared constitutional heritage, is viewed as part of the problem through a political lens,” Collins said.

But she didn’t point her finger at Kavanaugh.

The fierce battle over Kavanaugh, which played out in the halls of the Senate and in kitchen-table debates across the country, will leave many searing memories: Ford testifying about the "indelible" laughter of Kavanaugh as he pinned her to a bed, covered her mouth and tried to undress her; Kavanaugh's indignant denial, distressed recounting of the impact of the allegations on his family and partisan lashing of Democrats; and Trump's ridicule of Ford.

Most important will be the moment Collins ended it all by saying she believed Kavanaugh more than Ford.