The Senate Judiciary Committee and lawyers for the woman who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her decades ago reached a tentative agreement on Saturday (US time) for her to publicly testify on Thursday, an apparent breakthrough that could alter the course of a bitter confirmation fight.
After a brief call late on Saturday, the woman’s lawyers and aides to Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, planned to talk again Sunday morning to continue the halting negotiations over the conditions of the testimony, according to three people familiar with the call. Aides to Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, were also involved.
But in a possible setback for the woman, Christine Blasey Ford, Republicans on the committee received a statement on Saturday that seemed to eliminate any chance of corroboration of Dr Blasey’s account by anyone who attended the high school party where she says she was assaulted.
A woman named Leland Keyser — who is believed to have been identified by Dr Blasey as one of the five people at the party — told the committee through a lawyer that she “does not know Mr Kavanaugh and she has no recollection of ever being at a party or gathering where he was present, with, or without, Dr Ford”.
Two men said to have been at the party, Mark Judge and Patrick Smyth, have also told the committee that they have no recollection of the events.
Still, even without corroboration, any testimony by Dr Blasey would set up a potentially explosive showdown, and it could greatly complicate matters for Judge Kavanaugh, who just last week — before Dr Blasey came forward with her account of the assault — seemed destined for confirmation to the Supreme Court.
While the negotiations over Dr Blasey’s testimony seemed to gain momentum, they could still falter over the details, which include who will question her. But in tentatively agreeing to a Thursday hearing, Republicans made a significant concession that suggested they were working to ensure that the session occurred after several days of uncertainty.
If no final deal is made, Mr Grassley will be left to decide on Sunday whether to move ahead with a committee vote on Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination that is scheduled for Monday, or give Dr Blasey more time.
Judge Kavanaugh, who has vigorously denied the allegations, has repeatedly expressed his desire to testify.
Mr Grassley had set 2.30pm on Saturday as a final deadline for Dr Blasey to agree or decline to appear. In a letter to the committee sent to meet that deadline, lawyers for Dr Blasey, 51, a research psychologist in northern California, said they were hopeful that an agreement could be reached on the details.
Dr Blasey “accepts the committee’s request to provide her first-hand knowledge of Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual misconduct next week”, they wrote. The lawyers called details of Mr Grassley’s earlier proposal, including a Wednesday hearing date “fundamentally inconsistent with the committee’s promise of a fair, impartial investigation into her allegations”.
The tentative deal reached hours later came as White House officials and Republicans on Capitol Hill were growing increasingly frustrated at what they said was a ploy to delay the Monday vote. After the Judiciary Committee revealed Ms Keyser’s statement, the White House swung into the offensive against Dr Blasey.
“One week ago, Dr Christine Ford claimed she was assaulted at a house party attended by four others,” said Kerri Kupec, a White House spokeswoman. “Since then, all four of these individuals have provided statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee denying any knowledge of the incident or even having attended such a party.”
A lawyer for Dr Blasey, Debra Katz, said in a statement that it was “unremarkable that Ms Keyser does not remember attending a specific gathering 30 years ago at which nothing of consequence happened to her”.
Democrats praised Dr Blasey and said they hoped the agreement would hold together. “She is a profile in courage,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut and a committee member who was briefed on the back and forth. “She has come so far in meeting truly outrageously arbitrary and unfair demands simply to speak her truth to power and to the American people.”
The tentative agreement was the latest turn in an on-again-off-again negotiation that began cordially, with Dr Blasey voicing an openness to testifying, but quickly turned acrimonious.
There have been several sticking points, including who would question her at a hearing — Republicans want to hire an outside counsel; Dr Blasey would prefer to be questioned by senators — and how many news media cameras would be present. The lawyers have also asked for the committee to subpoena testimony from Mark Judge, who Dr Blasey has said witnessed the assault.
Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has said that he has enough votes to confirm Judge Kavanaugh, but with at least two Republicans in the Senate undecided and with the party holding only a 51-to-49 majority, it is hardly assured. It is increasingly unlikely that Judge Kavanaugh will have the support of even a single Senate Democrat.
Privately, Republican senators were working to resolve differences among themselves about how to proceed. Some favoured cutting off negotiations over the hearing and moving swiftly to a vote, while others pushed to accommodate Dr Blasey’s wishes.
One of those who has favoured accommodation, Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, said on Twitter on Saturday afternoon that he saw progress. “This is good,” he wrote.
Among the many considerations, according to one official close to the discussions, was how Republican voters would react to any move to push past the allegations. President Trump suggested at a rally on Friday night that he believes that the public, including many women, want to “fight for” Judge Kavanaugh.
After breaking his silence about Dr Blasey on Friday and questioning her allegations, the president on Saturday stayed mum about her, heeding the advice of aides who have warned him repeatedly against appearing to attack her.
Dr Blasey’s accusations, coming just days before the Judiciary Committee was initially set to vote on Judge Kavanaugh, have rocked official Washington, evoking memories of the 1991 confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment by the law professor Anita Hill. They have further energised Democrats, and women particularly, in a midterm election in which Republicans are struggling to court the female vote.
Over the past week, Dr Blasey has become a cultural touchstone for women around the country in the era of the #MeToo movement. A hashtag, #IBelieveChristine, has sprung up on Twitter, and survivors of sexual assault are set to rally in New York on Monday. A Facebook post promoting the rally said that “New York City stands with Dr Blasey Ford and all sexual assault survivors.” Groups of law students and women were expected to travel to Washington this week in a show of support for Dr Blasey. Others have rallied in support of Judge Kavanaugh.
Dr Blasey has said that a drunken Judge Kavanaugh assaulted her during a small party in suburban Washington when they were both in high school. As Mr Judge watched, she said, he pushed her onto a bed, jumped on top of her, groped her, covered her mouth and tried to remove her clothing. Dr Blasey was able to leave the room when the friend jumped atop both of them, she said.
Officials said Judge Kavanaugh, who spent much of this past week at the White House preparing for a hearing, was well rehearsed and ready to appear on Capitol Hill if senators opted to go forward with a session. At mock hearings last week, according to a White House official, he practised fielding specific questions about the accusations and deflecting broad inquiries about his social life, such as his general drinking habits.
The intense attention on Dr Blasey’s accusation continued to reverberate on Capitol Hill on Saturday in unexpected ways. One of Mr Grassley’s communications advisers, who had joined the Judiciary Committee temporarily to help shape messaging around Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation, stepped down from his position after NBC News raised questions about an accusation that he sexually harassed a co-worker in a previous political job.
The adviser, Garrett Ventry, said the sexual harassment claim against him was false. A spokesman for the committee, Taylor Foy, noted the denial of wrongdoing but said that Mr Ventry had decided to step aside “to avoid causing any distraction from the work of the committee”.
Before joining Mr Grassley’s staff, Mr Ventry worked for CRC Public Relations, a Virginia-based firm whose conservative clients include the Federalist Society and other groups backing Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation. A spokesman for CRC said that Mr Ventry had been on a leave of absence and that the firm had accepted his resignation on Saturday.
Michael Bromwich, a prominent Washington lawyer, joined Dr Blasey’s legal team on Friday. After doing so, he resigned from his law firm, Robbins Russell, amid objections within the firm about his work, including potential public appearances on Dr Blasey’s behalf.
Mr Bromwich, a former inspector general of the Justice Department, is also at the centre of another leading story line in Washington: He represents Andrew McCabe, the former deputy FBI director, who was fired this year and witnessed many of the most sensitive episodes of the bureau’s Russia investigation.
“Because objections have been raised within the partnership to my doing so while employed by the firm, I am resigning from the firm, effective immediately,” Mr Bromwich wrote in a letter to the firm’s staff, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.
-The New York Times