By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Republican U.S. Senate committee chairman said on Tuesday the woman who has accused President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault decades ago has not yet agreed to appear at a public hearing set for next Monday.
Senator Chuck Grassley said Christine Blasey Ford, a university professor in California whose allegations have put Kavanaugh’s once-safe nomination in serious jeopardy, has not responded to attempts by the Republican-led Judiciary Committee, which oversees the confirmation process, to contact her.
Trump told reporters he remains “totally supportive” of Kavanaugh, who met with officials at the White House for a second straight day, though not with the president. Trump said Kavanaugh is “anxious” to testify.
“I don’t know about the other party,” Trump added, in an apparent reference to Ford.
Kavanaugh has denied the assault allegation.
Committee Democrats, already fiercely opposed to the nominee, wrote a letter to Grassley objecting to the planned format of the hearing, which was announced on Monday, including having just Kavanaugh and Ford as witnesses. Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, urged Trump’s fellow Republicans not to “rush the hearings.”
The hearing represents a potential make-or-break moment for the conservative federal appeals court judge’s confirmation chances for the lifetime post on the top U.S. court, as Trump seeks to continue his goal of moving the federal judiciary to the right.
“We have reached out to her in the last 36 hours, three or four times by email, and we’ve not heard from them. So it kind of raises the question … do they want to come to (the) public hearing or not?” Grassley said in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
“I want to hear from Dr. Ford,” Grassley said. “And she deserves to be heard because these are serious accusations. And I would surely hope she’d come Monday. I mean, after all, read all the details she put in the Washington Post. She’s surely prepared. She hired a lawyer, I understand, back in August.”
Ford detailed her allegation in a letter sent in July to Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat. The letter’s contents leaked last week and Ford identified herself in an interview with the Washington Post published on Sunday that included details about the alleged assault.
The committee announced on Monday it would postpone its planned vote on Thursday on Kavanaugh’s nomination, which requires Senate confirmation, and scheduled the high-stakes hearing with the nominee and his accuser to testify.
Ford has accused Kavanaugh of trying to attack her and remove her clothing while he was drunk 36 years ago in a Maryland suburb outside Washington when they were students at different high schools.
Debra Katz, a lawyer representing Ford, said in television interviews on Monday that the professor would be willing to testify and called the alleged incident “attempted rape.” Katz did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
Grassley said the hearing would be televised and would include just two witnesses, Ford and Kavanaugh. He questioned whether the hearing would take place if Ford declined to appear.
“What would be the purpose of the hearing if Dr. Ford doesn’t want to respond?” Grassley asked.
Republicans control the Senate by only a narrow margin, meaning any defections in the party could sink the nomination and deal a major setback to Trump.
Republican staffers quizzed Kavanaugh about the allegations on a call on Monday evening in which the Democrats refused to participate.
Democrats have so far also refused to cooperate with the committee’s Republican leadership. They have asked that the FBI conduct an investigation, a request that Republicans have rebuffed. Trump said on Tuesday he does not think the FBI needs to be involved.
Feinstein said on Tuesday there should be more than just two witnesses, possibly to include people who Ford previously confided in. The committee Democrats said witnesses should include Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge, who Ford has said witnessed the incident.
‘GET TO THE TRUTH’
The confirmation fight comes just weeks before the Nov. 6 congressional elections in which Democrats are seeking to take control of Congress from Trump’s party, which could be a major blow to the president’s agenda.
Schumer noted that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to act on Democratic former President Barack Obama’s 2016 nominee to the high court, Merrick Garland, leaving a vacant seat on the high court for more than a year.
“Now they are saying we can’t take an additional few weeks to get to the truth of a serious allegation. What hypocrisy,” Schumer said.
The showdown has echoes of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ contentious confirmation hearings in 1991 involving sexual harassment allegations lodged against him by a law professor named Anita Hill. Thomas was ultimately confirmed, but only after a nasty televised hearing in which Hill faced pointed questions from Republican senators and the nominee said he was the victim of “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”
Grassley offered his assurance that Ford would be treated respectfully and not badgered during the hearing. All 11 Republicans on the committee are men. Four of the Democrats are women.
Grassley said details about how the hearing would be conducted had not been worked out, including parameters for panel members posing questions or the possibility that committee Republicans could choose a single questioner.
Republican Senator Susan Collins, a moderate whose vote could be crucial, said on Twitter lawyers for Kavanaugh and Ford should be allowed to question the two witnesses during the hearing before senators do so in order to elicit the most information and allow for an in-depth examination of the allegation.
Inside the White House, plans are not currently being made in case Kavanaugh’s confirmation unravels, including identifying a potential replacement nominee, according to a source familiar with the nomination process who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“It would be unjust and foolhardy to think of any Plan B until this matter is completely resolved,” the source said.
Trump picked Kavanaugh in July to replace retired conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Steve Holland and Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)