World·Analysis

How newly revealed sexual-misconduct accusations could change calculus of Brett Kavanaugh hearings

Fresh accusations of sexual misconduct will cast another cloud of doubt over what was once seen as a sure-thing confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Legal experts say it will also give Democrats more ammunition to establish an alleged pattern of sexual impropriety.

Senate committee to hear from Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accuses him of sexual assault

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh leaves his Maryland home on Wednesday. Kavanaugh is scheduled to appear before the Senate judiciary committee on Thursday to respond to allegations of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Judge Brett Kavanaugh's turbulent U.S. Supreme Court nomination process went into a further tailspin Wednesday — a day before his scheduled testimony before the Senate judiciary committee — as a third woman accusing him of sexual impropriety came forward, followed by revelations about two more accusers.

Graphic accusations laid out in a statement from Julie Swetnick, the third person to go public, allege the embattled nominee and his friends spiked drinks at high school house parties in the 1980s so girls could "lose their inhibitions." It will cast another cloud of doubt over what was once seen as a sure-thing confirmation.

Later on Wednesday, the Senate panel released a transcript of an interview with Kavanaugh earlier this week in which he also denied to judiciary panel staffers a fourth claim from a woman. The unnamed accuser, who wrote a letter to Sen. Cory Gardner on Sept. 22, said Kavanaugh pushed her friend up against a wall "very aggressively and sexually" after a night of drinking at a bar in 1998.

It also emerged Wednesday that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse received a separate anonymous tip concerning an alleged rape on a boat in Rhode Island in 1985. Senate staffers this week asked Kavanaugh about that incident. He denied it, and the person who made the accusation has since recanted.

Legal experts say the new accusations give Democrats on the committee more ammunition to establish an alleged pattern of sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh. 

Faced with persistent questioning at a news conference in New York, U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday left open the possibility he might reconsider Kavanaugh's nomination. Trump said he wanted to wait to decide until after Thursday's hearing — and testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, a California psychologist and university professor who says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teens.

"I can always be convinced," Trump said. "It will be interesting to hear what she has to say."

U.S. president says that he will be watching the hearing, says it's 'possible' he will change his mind 0:43

At the same time, the president characterized the accusations against Kavanaugh as part of a "big fat con job" by Democrats to obstruct his confirmation and tarnish the judge's reputation.

The judiciary committee will hear testimony from both Kavanaugh and Ford at Thursday's hearing, which is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. ET and will be carried live on CBCNews.ca.

That Swetnick's allegations detail events that allegedly took place during Kavanaugh's high school years, the same period as the events Ford described, will be especially compelling for Democratic senators, legal scholars say.

The latest accusations from Swetnick, a Washington resident, add uncertainty to whether a nomination vote scheduled for Friday by the Senate judiciary committee will proceed — or if Swetnick's sworn declaration will give pause to the two Republican Senators who are considered to be the potential swing votes: Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins.

This undated photo of Julie Swetnick was released by her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, via Twitter on Wednesday. The Senate judiciary committee says it is reviewing allegations by Swetnick, a longtime federal government employee. (Michael Avenatti via AP)

"It's obviously troubling to people what this third accuser has said, but I think the dynamic is one where Republicans want to push on through and have the vote," said Carl Tobias, an expert on judicial nominations and a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

"I don't know if that's going to be satisfactory for the American people … and perhaps others who might say, 'We want to know more, and if we don't know more, we'll vote: No.'"

Considering the swing voters

If Kavanaugh's nomination is approved by the judiciary committee, it would next be brought before the whole U.S. Senate, where Republicans hold a thin 51-49 majority. 

Murkowski and Collins might be convinced that a Friday vote, mere hours after Thursday's hearing, would be too soon, Tobias said.

He said that committee chair Chuck Grassley scheduled the vote to satisfy committee rules but that "he left an escape hatch" to delay the vote if there were lingering uncertainties about Kavanaugh.

"[Kavanaugh's] situation is not as good as it was yesterday, just because each new increment adds to what came before," Tobias said. "These accusations are, in some ways, maybe even stronger than the others because it sounds like a pattern."

Trump says his opponents are obstructionists who destroyed Brett Kavanaugh's reputation 0:35

Swetnick is a client of Michael Avenatti, the lawyer representing Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress who was paid hush money during the 2016 presidential campaign in exchange for silence about an alleged affair with Trump in 2006.

In her sworn court declaration, Swetnick writes that she "became aware of efforts" by Kavanaugh and his Georgetown Preparatory classmate Mark Judge "to 'spike' the 'punch' at house parties … with drugs and/or grain alcohol so as to cause girls to lose their inhibitions and their ability to say 'No.'"

Swetnick, who says she was a victim of a "train," or "gang," rape at one such party in 1982, does not say Kavanaugh assaulted her, but she alleges the Supreme Court nominee attended the party where her rape occurred.

"I also witnessed efforts by Mark Judge, Brett Kavanaugh and others to cause girls to become inebriated and disoriented so they could then be 'gang raped' in a side room or bedroom by a 'train' of numerous boys," she says in her affidavit.

'Twilight zone'

Kavanaugh dismissed Swetnick's accusations as coming "from the Twilight Zone." He has denied the allegations of his other accusers, Ford and Deborah Ramirez, as part of a "grotesque and obvious character assassination."

The process unfolding on Thursday is expected to focus on accusations by Ford that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in the 1980s during a high school house party in suburban Maryland.

Alumnae of Holton-Arms School, Karen Bralove, class of 1963, left, Sarah Burgess, class of 2005, and Alexis Goldstein, class of 1999, speak to members of the media about a letter they delivered to the office of Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who also attended the school. The letter calls for an independent investigation of accusations by Christine Blasey Ford, a 1984 graduate of the school, against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

But Stacy Hawkins, who teaches constitutional law at Rutgers University, expects the Swetnick accusations, as well as those from Ramirez, one of his former Yale classmates, to "exist in the background" as strands that Democrats will tug at.

"Unlike Ms. Ramirez's allegations, which as I understand are related to Kavanaugh's time at Yale, both Dr. Blasey Ford and this new, latest victim have allegations relating to high school," she said. "So I could imagine, for instance, a Democratic senator on the judiciary committee asking Dr. Blasey Ford whether she's familiar with this woman [Swetnick], or the allegations she's making, because they relate to the same historic period of Brett Kavanaugh's life and there may be overlap in terms of the common players."

Judge appears in both Swetnick's and Ford's accounts.

"If there is a similar pattern of conduct, that could be relevant in terms of whether the allegations in this particular case are credible," Hawkins said.

Republicans on the judiciary committee, aware of the optics all-white-male panel interrogating Ford, have tapped Rachel Mitchell, an Arizona sex crimes prosecutor, to ask questions on their behalf.

"That will be an interesting dynamic that doesn't preclude any of the 11 Republicans on the committee from interjecting their own questions," Hawkins said.

Ford to testify 1st

Ford has said she can't recall all the details of her alleged assault by Kavanaugh, such as the exact time or location. But she alleges that a drunken, 17-year-old Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed with his body, groped her and tried to remove her clothes while attempting to muffle her cries for help. She said she was 15 at the time.

"I thought he might inadvertently kill me," Ford told The Washington Post.

This undated photo of Deborah Ramirez was provided by the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence. (Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence via AP)

The now-51-year-old research psychologist also alleges that Kavanaugh's friend, Judge, watched the assault and that she managed to escape when Judge jumped on them, causing them all to fall to the floor.

Reporting from the New Yorker magazine described a second allegation of sexual misconduct from Ramirez, a Yale classmate of Kavanaugh's. The 53-year-old says she and Kavanaugh were both freshmen at a Yale dorm mixer when he thrust his penis at her face, causing her to touch his genitals as she pushed it away.

"I would think an FBI investigation would be warranted," she told The New Yorker of the incident.

Ramirez conceded she was drinking at the time and her memory contains some gaps. Fragmented memories are common among survivors of rape and trauma.

1982 calendar

Taking an extraordinary step for a Supreme Court nominee before his confirmation vote, Kavanaugh sat down for an on-air interview with Fox News on Monday. Without prompting, he volunteered that he was a virgin at the time of Ford's claims and "for many years thereafter."

His admission that he "did not have sexual intercourse" during high school, however, doesn't exculpate him from the key accusation of attempted sexual assault.

"I was focused on trying to be No. 1 in my class, being captain of the varsity basketball team and doing my service projects, going to church," the 53-year-old justice said in the interview.

As part of his defence, Kavanaugh's lawyers plan to present calendars from when he was 17, which bear no mention of the party that Ford mentions.

This image released by the Senate judiciary committee on Wednesday shows the calendar submitted by Kavanaugh. (Senate judiciary committee/Associated Press)

Several of Kavanaugh's former Yale classmates took umbrage with the Supreme Court nominee's "choir boy" image. Liz Swisher, who said she was a college friend, told the Washington Post that Kavanaugh was a "sloppy drunk," and others recalled he could become aggressive when inebriated.

In a statement Wednesday, Kavanaugh said that he had the occasional drink on weekends and at times consumed too much, but denied ever sexually assaulting anyone.

Ford, who is expected to testify before Kavanaugh on Thursday, said she first raised the incident long before Kavanaugh's nomination, during couples therapy with her husband in 2012. The therapist's notes reportedly don't name Kavanaugh specifically, but outline that she said she was attacked by students "from an elitist boys' school" and mention they later became "high-ranking members of society in Washington."

Ford passed a polygraph test last month and has demanded an FBI investigation, which was not granted before her hearing on Thursday.

Ford's husband told The Washington Post his wife once expressed anxieties that Kavanaugh might someday be nominated to the Supreme Court.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said an unnamed accuser wrote a letter to Sen. Cory Booker on Sept. 22. In fact, it was Sen. Cory Gardner.
    Sep 27, 2018 6:48 AM ET

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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