Republicans close ranks around Kavanaugh, but Murkowski urges caution

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump attacked one of the women who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in harsh and stark language Tuesday, as senators escalated their partisan warfare over his confirmation ahead of a highly anticipated hearing.

After his speech at the United Nations, Trump took aim at Deborah Ramirez, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale University and the second woman to accuse the nominee. She told the New Yorker magazine that he exposed himself to her at a party when they were both first-year students. Dismissing Ramirez’s account because she was “totally inebriated and all messed up,” Trump also accused Democrats of playing a “con game” in an attempt to derail his Supreme Court choice.

"The second accuser has nothing," Trump told reporters. "The second accuser thinks maybe it could have been him, maybe not. She admits she was drunk. She admits time lapses."

The president dismissed the notion that the allegation could be disqualifying, saying sarcastically: "Oh, gee, let's not make him a Supreme Court judge because of that."

Trump's charged rhetoric against his nominee's accusers came as Republicans quickly closed ranks around Kavanaugh, even as a handful of pivotal swing votes remained quiet on whether they would ultimately support his confirmation in the coming days.

The Supreme Court begins its new term Monday, and Republicans are under intense political pressure from conservatives to confirm Kavanaugh amid warnings that failure could cost the GOP in November’s midterm elections.

Late Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent out a notice scheduling a 9:30 a.m. committee vote Friday in the case "that a majority of the members are prepared" to vote then. The full Senate could vote next Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was defiant, speaking confidently about Kavanaugh's prospects, assailing Democrats and casting the nominee as a victim of "the weaponization of unsubstantiated smears."

"We're going to be moving forward. I'm confident we're going to win," McConnell told reporters Tuesday afternoon. "He will be confirmed in the very near future."

And asked Tuesday whether he could envision any scenario in which the White House withdraws Kavanaugh's nomination, deputy press secretary Raj Shah said on MSNBC: "Absolutely not."

Looking ahead to Thursday's hearing, Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said his staff has hired a female lawyer from outside the committee to lead the questioning, but he would not disclose her identity, citing her security.

Kavanaugh has vehemently denied the allegation from Ramirez, as well as the accusation from Christine Blasey Ford, who told The Washington Post that he sexually assaulted her when they were high school students in Maryland. Top Judiciary Committee staffers held a call with Kavanaugh earlier Tuesday to interview him about the allegation outlined in the New Yorker. As he has done publicly, Kavanaugh again denied the allegation in the staff interview, a committee spokesman said.

Unlike a previous staff interview, Democratic aides listened in on the Tuesday afternoon call, another person briefed on the conversation said. But the Democrats - who have called for the FBI to reopen its background check investigation of Kavanaugh - made their objections to the process clear and subsequently refused to ask the judge questions, the person said.

One of the biggest points of contention remained the outside counsel. Republicans have chosen a female outside counsel to question Ford at Thursday's hearing - a way to avoid a repeat of the optics in 1991, when an all-male committee's questioning of Anita Hill about her allegations of sexual impropriety against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas angered female voters, who elected dozens of women in November 1992. Thomas was confirmed to the high court.

All 11 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are men (as are six of the 10 Democrats).

"We've done it because we want to depoliticize the whole process, like the Democrats politicized the Anita Hill thing," said Grassley, who was on the Judiciary Committee in 1991. "The whole point is to create an environment where it's what Dr. Ford has asked for, to be professional and to not be a circus."

The name of the female lawyer has been tightly held among Grassley, senior senators such as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and top staffers. One person close to Kavanaugh said the nominee does not know who it is, and lawyers for Ford asked Grassley's staff in a letter Monday evening to provide them her name.

Senate Democrats plan to ask their own questions of Kavanaugh and Ford, and the Democratic members of the committee met midday Tuesday to strategize about the hearing.

"It's up to them," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Calif., the top Democrat on the panel, said of Republicans' plan to use an outside lawyer. "It's certainly their right to do that, and we'll see how it goes. I've been on the committee for 24 years, and I've never seen it before. But we'll see."

The identity of the lawyer - who will question Ford and Kavanaugh - is expected to be disclosed Thursday morning before the hearing, and her time for questioning will be equal to what the committee Democrats get.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., pushed back at McConnell and Senate Republicans in unusually personal terms, criticizing McConnell for a promise last week to "plow right through" the proceedings despite the drama over Kavanaugh's accusers.

"Does that sound like someone who's treating these allegations with respect and fairness and evenhandedness?" Schumer asked. "Does that sound like someone who wants to get the real facts no matter where they fall? Certainly not to me. Not to the American people."

Ford has alleged that Kavanaugh drunkenly pinned her to a bed, groped her and put his hand over her mouth to stifle her screams as he tried to take off her clothes at a house party in the early 1980s. Kavanaugh has denied being at the party.

Meanwhile, the committee continued its outreach to Ramirez. Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., said Republicans had been rebuffed after trying to contact her lawyer, and a committee spokesman said it has not received a statement or additional evidence from her legal team after requesting them.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that while the White House is open to testimony from Ramirez, she stressed that the confirmation process needs to come to a close.

The New Yorker reported Sunday that in Ramirez's initial conversations with the publication, "she was reluctant to characterize Kavanaugh's role in the alleged incident with certainty."

But "after six days of carefully assessing her memories and consulting with her attorney, Ramirez said that she felt confident enough of her recollections to say that she remembers Kavanaugh had exposed himself at a drunken dormitory party, thrust his penis in her face, and caused her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away," the magazine said.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, remained quiet about her intentions but stressed that the Thursday hearing should continue - even while the senator called for Ramirez to speak to the Judiciary Committee under oath.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, another potential swing vote, said it was hard to assess Ramirez’s credibility at this point.

“If there are allegations out there, then Ms. Ramirez needs to be willing to come forward with them, just as Dr. Ford has been willing to come forward, albeit reluctantly and understandably so,” Murkowski said. “And so in order for us to take them under consideration, she needs to take the next steps.”

Earlier in the day, Murkowski told reporters that an FBI investigation could help clear up the facts in the case. Republicans have resisted calls by Democrats for the FBI to investigate the claims of Kavanaugh's accusers. She later said the Judiciary Committee could handle the investigation for now.

In a Monday interview with The New York Times, Murkowski said she helped keep alive negotiations between Republicans and Ford’s lawyers last week.

“We are now in a place where it’s not about whether or not Judge Kavanaugh is qualified,” Murkowski told the Times. “It is about whether or not a woman who has been a victim at some point in her life is to be believed.”

Alaska’s other senator, Republican Dan Sullivan, previously announced his support for Kavanaugh. On Tuesday, he issued a statement saying the allegations against Kavanaugh should get a hearing. "...On recent claims made against Judge Kavanaugh. I would like to reiterate that allegations of sexual assault should be taken seriously. Both Professor Ford and Judge Kavanaugh deserve the right to be heard on this matter. I commend Chairman Grassley on committing to as much and will be following Thursday’s Committee hearing closely.”

Dozens of people protesting Kavanaugh’s confirmation were arrested Tuesday outside Senate offices, including at least some Alaskans who had traveled to lobby Sullivan.

Away from Washington, there were walkouts in support of Ford and Ramirez by dozens of liberal groups, the Associated Press reported. 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.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Ramirez’s accusations seem “pretty thinly sourced.” As to whether they should be explored, he said he will leave that to the Judiciary Committee. “Whatever they decide is fine with me,” Corker said.

By the time the committee holds its hearing Thursday, there could be a third Kavanaugh accuser.

Lawyer Michael Avenatti has said he is representing a woman who has accusations about Kavanaugh's behavior in high school. In a Tuesday morning tweet, Avenatti said the woman would come forward only when she is ready but said he expects that to be within 36 hours.

At their regular Tuesday party lunch, Republicans were told to be prepared to be in Washington this weekend to process Kavanaugh's nomination, senators said.

Meanwhile, another sexual misconduct allegation threatened to play out Thursday on the other side of Capitol Hill. The House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday invited a woman who has accused Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mel Watt, a former Democratic congressman, of sexual harassment and retaliation.

Additional reporting by the Anchorage Daily News.