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Kavanaugh accuser may testify after all — under right terms

Updated September 20, 2018 - 4:34 pm

Christine Blasey Ford may personally testify against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh after all, her attorney said Thursday, breathing new life into the prospect of a dramatic Senate showdown next week over Ford’s accusation that he assaulted her when both were in high school.

Ford will tell her story to the Judiciary Committee, whose senators will vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation — but only if agreement can be reached on “terms that are fair and which ensure her safety,” the attorney said.

The positive tone of the lawyer’s email revived the possibility that the panel would hold an electrifying campaign-season hearing at which both Ford and President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee could give their versions of what did or didn’t happen at a party in the 1980s. Kavanaugh, now a judge on the powerful District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, has repeatedly denied her allegation.

The accusation has jarred the 53-year-old conservative jurist’s prospects for winning confirmation, which until Ford’s emergence last week had seemed all but certain. It has also bloomed into a broader clash over whether women alleging abuse are taken seriously by men and how both political parties address such claims with the advent of the #MeToo movement — a theme that could echo in this November’s elections for control of Congress.

In one obstacle that must be overcome, Katz’s email said a hearing Monday is “not possible” and that scheduling it that day “is arbitrary in any event.” Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has scheduled the hearing for that morning, and he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have indicated it would be Ford’s only chance to make her case. Republicans are anxious to move ahead to a vote by the committee, where they hold an 11-10 majority, and then by the full Senate, which they control, 51-49.

Taylor Foy, spokesman for Republicans on the panel, made no commitment but said in a written statement, “We are happy that Dr. Ford’s attorneys are now engaging with the Committee.”

Attorney Debra Katz said anew that Ford, 51, a psychology professor in California, has received death threats and for safety reasons has relocated her family.

“She wishes to testify, provided that we can agree on terms that are fair and which ensure her safety,” Katz wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Associated Press after first being reported by The New York Times.

Should Ford testify, especially in public, it would pit the words of two distinguished professionals against each other as television close-ups capture every emotion. Assessing them would be not just the committee’s 21 senators — of whom only four are women, all Democrats — but millions of viewing voters.

Underscoring the sensitivity of all-male GOP senators grilling a woman who’s alleged abuse, Republicans are considering reaching out to female attorneys who might question Ford, according to a person who spoke only on condition of anonymity.

If Ford opts not to participate, Republicans could well dispense with the hearing to avoid giving Democrats a forum for peppering Kavanaugh with embarrassing questions. They would argue that they’d offered Ford several options for describing her accusation, but that she’d snubbed them.

Kavanaugh, who’s been eager to testify, said he was ready to appear Monday.

“I will be there,” he wrote Grassley in a letter. “I continue to want a hearing as soon as possible, so that I can clear my name.”

Ford has contended that at a house party in Washington’s Maryland suburbs, a drunken Kavanaugh tried undressing her and stifling her cries on a bed before she fled.

Grassley has said that in the interest of making Ford comfortable, he’d be willing to let Ford testify in public or private. He even offered to send committee aides to her California home to take testimony.

“Dr. Ford has asked me to let you know that she appreciates the various options you have suggested,” Katz wrote. The email did not say any option was preferred.

As the week has proceeded, Republicans have seemed to regain momentum toward approving Kavanaugh though his prospects have remained uncertain.

Even moderate Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said it would “unfair” to Kavanaugh if Ford decides to not appear, and others were urging leaders to proceed quickly to a vote. Still, the bare 51-49 Republican majority means they can lose just one vote and still approve him if all Democrats vote no. Vice President Mike Pence would break a tie.

Democrats have tried using the issue to demonstrate that Republicans treat women unfairly, their eyes on upcoming elections in which suburban, anti-Trump female voters could be pivotal in many races. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a possible 2020 presidential candidate, said Republicans were “bullying” Ford by giving her a Monday deadline to testify.

Thursday’s email was the latest turnabout by Ford and her lawyers.

She went public with her accusation over the weekend in a Washington Post interview, and said Monday through her lawyer that she was ready to testify. But Tuesday, she began insisting on an FBI investigation of her allegations and said other witnesses should also participate a hearing. Those conditions had cast strong doubts on her willingness to appear, and it became unclear whether Republicans would even hold the hearing.

The email said Ford’s “strong preference” remains that the committee allow a thorough investigation of her claim before she appears. But that wording fell short of a non-negotiable demand.

Katz asked committee aides for a telephone conversation to discuss terms.

Kavanaugh was spotted at the White House Thursday, and allies said he is eager to address the accusation and will be prepared to address the committee Monday. President Donald Trump refrained from tweeting about his nominee.

Republicans have resisted all Democratic efforts to slow and perhaps block Kavanaugh’s confirmation. A substantial delay could push confirmation past the November elections, when Democrats have a shot at winning Senate control, plus allow more time for unforeseen problems to crop up.

Associated Press writers Padmananda Rama, Catherine Lucey and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed.

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