WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans mounted a combative, coordinated drive Monday to salvage Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination as they fought to keep a second woman's allegation of long-ago sexual misconduct from derailing his confirmation. President Donald Trump leapt to his defense, the Senate's top Republican accused Democrats of a "smear campaign" and an emotional Kavanaugh declared, "I'm not going anywhere."
In the run-up to an appearance by Kavanaugh and his main accuser at a dramatic Senate hearing, the Republicans embraced their newly aggressive stance with his nomination dangling precariously. The similar tones and wording they used suggested a concerted effort to undermine the women's claims, portray an image of unity among GOP senators and press ahead to a confirmation vote.
Trump called the accusations "totally political" and among "the single most unfair, unjust things to happen to a candidate for anything." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., angrily accused Democrats of slinging "all the mud they could manufacture."
Unintimidated, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, retorted, "If you really believe they are a smear job, why don't you call for FBI investigation?" Schumer accused the Republicans of "a rush job to avoid the truth."
Trump has made clear he won't order an FBI investigation of the allegations. And McConnell said that Thursday's Judiciary Committee hearing would proceed and that full Senate consideration would follow "in the near future," though he mentioned no date.
In a letter to the committee, which plans the climactic hearing featuring Kavanaugh and his first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, the nominee accused his opponents of launching "smears, pure and simple."
In an unusual strategy for a Supreme Court nominee, Kavanaugh, 53, now a judge on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, also sat for an interview along with his wife late Monday on the conservative-friendly Fox News Channel.
Careful not to assail Ford but firm in his denial, he said, "I am not questioning and have not questioned that perhaps Dr. Ford at some point in her life was sexually assaulted by someone at some place, but what I know is I've never sexually assaulted anyone."
"I'm not going to let false accusations drive us out of this process and we're looking for a fair process where I can be heard and defend my integrity, my lifelong record," he said in an excerpt released by Fox before the telecast. "My lifelong record of promoting dignity and equality for women starting with the women who knew me when I was 14 years old. I'm not going anywhere."
On Sunday, The New Yorker magazine reported that Deborah Ramirez described a 1980s, alcohol-heavy Yale dormitory party at which she said Kavanaugh exposed himself, placed his penis in her face and caused her to touch it without her consent.
Despite the forceful rhetoric by Kavanaugh and his GOP supporters, it remained unclear how three moderate Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Arizona's Jeff Flake and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski — would react to the latest accusation. With the GOP's Senate control hanging on a razor-thin 51-49 margin, defections by any two Republican senators would seal his fate if all Democrats vote "no."
Proceeding with Kavanaugh seems to give Republicans their best shot at filling the Supreme Court vacancy — and giving the court an increasingly conservative tilt — before November's elections, when GOP Senate control is in play.
Even if Republicans lose their Senate majority, they could still have time to confirm a nominee in a post-election lame duck session, but the GOP has not indicated that is under consideration. Delaying Kavanaugh's confirmation could give time for doubts about him to take root or for any fresh accusations to emerge.
Pushing forward with Kavanaugh has risks of its own, besides an embarrassing defeat for Trump and the GOP. His nomination and the claims of sexual misconduct dating from his teenage years have stirred up women and liberal voters whose antipathy to Republicans has already been heightened by Trump's policies and his own fraught history of alleged sexual transgressions.
Dozens of people protesting Kavanaugh were arrested Monday outside Collins' Capitol Hill office. Many wore black "Be A Hero" shirts and chanted slogans including, "We will not be silenced."
Protests on Capitol Hill were buttressed by walkouts away from Washington in support of Ford and Ramirez that were staged by dozens of liberal groups. The campaign was promoted on Twitter under the hashtag #BelieveSurvivors, and several Democrats in Congress — including members of the Senate Judiciary Committee vetting Kavanaugh — posted photos in support.
A week ago, Ford told the Washington Post that at a high school house party in the early 1980s, a drunk Kavanaugh forced her into a bedroom where he pinned her on a bed, tried removing her clothes and muffled her mouth to prevent screams before she escaped.
With increasing intensity, Republicans have attacked the credibility of both women's accounts. They note that neither the accusers nor news organizations have found people willing to provide corroboration, even though Ford and Ramirez have both named people who they said were present at the alleged incidents.
Ramirez, who told The New Yorker that she had been drinking at the time, was initially reluctant to speak publicly "partly because her memories contained gaps," the magazine said. After "six days of carefully assessing her memories and consulting with her attorney," she felt confident enough to go public, the report said.
The Associated Press tried reaching Ramirez at her home in Boulder, Colorado. A sign posted on her front door indicated she would have no comment.
White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway held a conference call with supporters Monday morning during which, according to a participant who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private call, she said there was a "vast left-wing conspiracy" to prevent Kavanaugh from winning confirmation.
Also jumping into the fray was the attorney who represents porn actress Stormy Daniels in her legal fight with Trump. Lawyer Michael Avenatti said he was representing a woman with information about high school-era parties attended by Kavanaugh and urged the Senate to investigate.
Avenatti, who has said he's considering a 2020 Democratic presidential bid, told the AP that he will disclose his client's identity in the coming days and that she is prepared to testify before the committee, as well as provide names of corroborating witnesses.
AP reporters Mary Clare Jalonick, Catherine Lucey, Jonathan Lemire, Kevin Freking, Padmananda Rama and Matthew Daly contributed.