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Sexual assault allegation roils Kavanaugh confirmation fight

Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans on Friday released a letter from 65 women who knew Brett Kavanaugh during his high school years calling him “a good person” — escalating their defense of the Supreme Court nominee as a decades-old sexual misconduct allegation surfaced.

Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) office circulated the pro-Kavanaugh letter less than 48 hours after the committee’s top Democrat, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, referred the allegation against the nominee to the FBI. Feinstein, who declined to say when she first became aware of the accusation, said she had “honored [a] decision” by the woman making the charges to maintain confidentiality. But the senator’s handling of the matter has stoked already-fierce partisan tensions over a confirmation the GOP is still pushing to wind up by the end of this month.
Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans on Friday released a letter from 65 women who knew Brett Kavanaugh during his high school years calling him “a good person” — escalating their defense of the Supreme Court nominee as a decades-old sexual misconduct allegation surfaced.

Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) office circulated the pro-Kavanaugh letter less than 48 hours after the committee’s top Democrat, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, referred the allegation against the nominee to the FBI. Feinstein, who declined to say when she first became aware of the accusation, said she had “honored [a] decision” by the woman making the charges to maintain confidentiality. But the senator’s handling of the matter has stoked already-fierce partisan tensions over a confirmation the GOP is still pushing to wind up by the end of this month.

The woman leveling the charge against Kavanaugh attended a nearby high school at the same time as the nominee. She, Kavanaugh, and another high-school male were alone in a room together when the alleged misconduct took place, according to two sources. The New Yorker reported Friday that the woman alleged Kavanaugh had attempted to force himself on her while physically restraining her.

The flaring controversy does not appear to have shaken Republican plans to bring Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Senate floor before the Supreme Court’s new term begins in the first week of October. With the GOP holding a 51-49 advantage, Republicans on the Hill described Kavanaugh’s prospects for approval as still on track barring any fresh public skepticism from swing-vote GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Kavanaugh’s female contemporaries countered the damning portrayal of the nominee that has surfaced the past 24 hours. “Through the more than 35 years we have known him, Brett has stood out for his friendship, character, and integrity. In particular, he has always treated women with decency and respect,” the women wrote. “That was true when he was in high school, and it has remained true to this day.”
The White House also released a statement from Kavanaugh that fully rebuts the woman’s charge. “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation,” the 53-year-old appeals court judge states. “I did not do this back in high school or at any time.”

Democrats have remained notably mum about the situation since Thursday, even as liberal groups off the Hill call for a pointed push to withdraw Kavanaugh’s nomination.

“That’s now in the hands of the FBI. That’s all I’m going to say about it,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who pressed Kavanaugh on the #MeToo movement during his confirmation hearing, told POLITICO’s Off Message podcast in an interview set to run Tuesday.

Brian Fallon, a former senior aide to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) who now helms the left-leaning group Demand Justice, nudged Democats for a more pointed response. “The message needs to be clear: withdraw,” he said.
The White House first heard vague rumors about the allegation against Kavanaugh late last week, but the specifics of the alleged high-school sexual assault landed on White House Counsel Don McGahn’s desk on Thursday, hours after Feinstein referred the matter to the FBI.

McGahn received the letter from the FBI around noon and immediately passed it to Capitol Hill, according to a White House aide. Kavanaugh and a network of clerks and former clerks who have been working with him during the confirmation process immediately lurched into action, contacting more than five dozen women who have known the judge since high school to sign the letter attesting to his character.

Nonetheless, most Republicans on Capitol Hill preparing to defend Kavanaugh amid attacks from Democrats were not aware of the letter as recently as Thursday, according to two people working on the nomination. Grassley still had not seen the letter as of Friday, according to his office, although a White House aide said the Judiciary panel received a physical copy of it within an hour after McGahn did.

Kavanaugh’s denial may do little to stanch the damaging trickle of revelations. The co-author of the New Yorker’s story, Ronan Farrow, has traveled to California in an attempt to persuade the woman behind the allegations to share her story, according to a source familiar with his reporting. The woman’s letter was channeled to Feinstein as well as to Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) through a Stanford Law School professor.

The White House has been acutely conscious from the outset of the need to portray Kavanaugh as a champion of women — and to have a stable of impressive women, Republicans and Democrats alike, ready to speak on his behalf — because of his likely role, if confirmed, as the high court’s new swing vote. They were prepared for Democratic charges that he was hostile to women and that if confirmed he was likely to strike down Roe v. Wade.
The conservative Judicial Crisis Network spent millions of dollars on ads featuring women and minorities backing Kavanaugh, and during his Senate confirmation hearings former female clerks were seated directly behind him — in a shot captured by television cameras and broadcast across the country.