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Anger and defiance from Kavanaugh at climactic Senate hearing after Ford says she's sure he assaulted her

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh strongly denied that he sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford decades ago at a fiery Senate hearing Thursday that could upend his nomination. Kavanaugh told the judiciary committee he "never committed sexual assault" and said the accusations against him had turned the confirmation process into "a national disgrace."

U.S. Supreme Court nominee says he's facing an 'orchestrated political hit'

Brett Kavanaugh, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, denied allegations that he sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford when they were in high school as he took questions from senators on the judiciary committee charged with assessing his nomination. (Gabriella Demczuk/Reuters)

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh strongly denied the allegation that he sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford decades ago, saying he "never committed sexual assault" and calling the confirmation process "a national disgrace" — a message echoed by several Republican senators.

His opening statement before the Senate judiciary committee Thursday came after Ford, her voice cracking, told senators she is certain it was Kavanaugh who sexually assaulted her in 1982, when she was 15 and he was 17.

Ford, a research psychologist and professor at Palo Alto University in California, told senators on Thursday that a drunken Kavanaugh attacked her and tried to remove her clothing at a social gathering in Maryland.

"I believed he was going to rape me," she said in her opening statement. She also said she believed she might die when, she alleged, Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth to stifle her calls for help.

"It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me," she told the committee of 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats.

Watch Ford describe the alleged assault:

Christine Blasey Ford tells the U.S. Senate judiciary committee how the alleged sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh unfolded one night in 1982. 1:39

Emotional — and defiant

In a blistering and occasionally tearful opening statement, Kavanaugh, 53, said that the 10-day delay between the emergence of Ford's allegation and the hearing had permanently damaged his family and his reputation — as well as the Supreme Court and the country. 

This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fuelled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election.- Brett Kavanaugh, Supreme Court nominee

He said "this whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fuelled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election." 

"I was not at the party described by Dr. Ford," he said.

Defiant in his denials, Kavanaugh said he wouldn't be "intimidated" into withdrawing from the confirmation process. 

Watch Kavanaugh answer questions about allegations other than Ford's:

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein asks nominee about other accusers 3:55

The federal judge said he's not questioning that Ford may have been assaulted "by some person, in some place, at some time."

"But I have never done that to her, or to anyone," he said, before turning back to 1982 and disputing the details of the allegation.

Ashley Kavanaugh listens as her husband testifies. (Win McNamee/Reuters)

The allegation isn't "merely uncorroborated. It is refuted by the very people she says were there," he said. 

The Associated Press reported that three people who Ford remembered being present stated they had no recollection of the party Ford described in her allegation. But their statements did not disprove the allegations, either.

Democrats, Republicans disagree after Kavanaugh is asked to back FBI probe:

Democrat urges Kavanaugh to seek FBI investigation 6:22

Ford said during her testimony she did not tell any of those who attended about the alleged assault at the time and wouldn't expect anyone but those involved to remember it as it was an unremarkable gathering for anyone but her and the two men she said took part in the assault.

Kavanaugh, who said several times that he thinks accusers should be heard, maintained that the allegation was uncorroborated through hours of questioning, in which he was asked about everything from his teenage drinking to his character.

As the hearing proceeded, Trump's nominee was pushed by Democrats to ask the White House to pause the process so the FBI could investigate.

Republican Lindsey Graham says he's voting for Kavanaugh:

Republican senator says he will vote to confirm Kavanaugh to U.S. Supreme Court 1:21

Republicans were largely supportive of Trump's pick, praising his record and the way he's comported himself through the confirmation process. The all-male Republican members of the committee brought in an outside prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, to pose their questions to Ford. Mitchell, who has years of experience prosecuting sex crimes, also had some of her own questions for Kavanaugh.

Phoenix prosecutor Rachel Mitchell asks questions of Ford on behalf of Republican committee members on Thursday. Republicans used her as their proxy when questioning Ford but switched to asking questions directly during Kavanaugh's testimony. (Michael Reynolds/Associated Press)

But some Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, addressed Kavanaugh directly themselves. 

Graham called the process the most "unethical sham" he's ever seen in politics and confirmed he'd be voting for Kavanaugh.

"You're looking for a fair process? You came to the wrong town at the wrong time, my friend," Graham said.

Near the end of the daylong hearing, Jeff Flake, a retiring Republican senator who has often clashed with Trump and is considered a possible swing vote in the confirmation, spoke about the difficulty of properly handling allegations such as Ford's in the Senate committee setting. 

Republican Senator Jeff Flake said senators would likely leave the hearing room with 'as much doubt as certainty' at the end of Thursday's proceedings. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

"This is not a good process, but it's all we've got," he said.

The senators were 21 imperfect people trying to do their best to assess the claims and come to a consensus. 

"And in the end, there is likely to be as much doubt as certainty going out of this room today," Flake said.

Trump — who has staunchly defended his nominee but said Wednesday that he was "open" to changing his mind — made his position clear on Twitter shortly after the hearing adjourned, calling Kavanaugh's testimony "powerful, honest, and riveting."

'100 per cent'

Ford, 51, told senators that Kavanaugh groped her and tried to take off her clothes. 

"I convinced myself, because Brett did not rape me, I should just move on," she said when asked why she didn't tell anyone about the assault for years.

Ford said she did tell a few people about the incident decades later, including her husband, Russell. She told senators she agonized over her decision to come forward but felt it was her civic duty to flag the incident once she learned Kavanaugh was on the short list to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy in July 2018.

She admitted she couldn't be clear on all of the details of the day in question in 1982 — including who drove her home from the gathering that night — but said it was impossible she could be mistaken about the attacker's identity.

"Absolutely not," she responded when asked about it by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Before Ford began her testimony, top-ranking judiciary committee members Chuck Grassley, left, a Republican from Iowa, and Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, gave conflicting accounts of the events that led to the hearing. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

She testified later that she was sober on that day, having had one beer at the party.

When Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois asked with what degree of certainty she could say Kavanaugh attacked her, she answered, "100 per cent."

Judiciary committee chair Chuck Grassley opened the hearing with an apology to both Kavanaugh and Ford for the way they've been treated in the days since Ford went public with her accusations, saying they and their families have received "vile threats."

Ford explains why she came forward:

Christine Blasey Ford talks about why she decided to speak to the U.S. Senate judiciary committee. 0:27

Party members clash

Some Republicans — including the president — have derided Ford's allegation as part of a smear campaign and a Democratic plot to sink Kavanaugh's nomination. But after more allegations emerged, some Republican senators allowed that much is riding on Kavanaugh's performance.

At the hearing, Ford stressed, "I am an independent person and no one's pawn."

Mitchell began her questions by saying "sorry" to Ford for what she's endured.

Later, Mitchell was more forceful, focusing on Ford's apparent vagueness about the year the attack occurred in statements to the committee and in a polygraph test she took in August on the advice of her attorney.

The documents submitted to the committee indicate Ford took the test at a Maryland hotel on Aug. 7 and seem to support her claim that she passed it, though there has been no independent verification of the results by an expert.

Mitchell questions Ford about the polygraph she took:

Rachel Mitchell continues to ask Blasey Ford about the polygraph she took and who paid for it 1:25

Ford said she came to the belief that the assault occurred in 1982 based on her remembrance that she did not yet have her driver's licence at the time. When asked what other details about that night stuck out for her the most, Ford said one thing she'll never forget is that Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge laughed to themselves after she managed to fend off the attack.

"The uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense," she said when asked by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy to recount her strongest memory of the assault.

Judge, whose name appears in accusations from the 1980s about Kavanaugh made by a separate woman, has not been subpoenaed by the committee.

Kavanaugh was later asked by Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris if he had taken a polygraph. He said he hadn't, saying that they aren't reliable.

The California Democrat then questioned Kavanaugh's assertion that the process was a Democratic smear campaign, pointing out that Democrats had recently gone through the same process with Neil Gorsuch, a Republican Supreme Court nominee who was confirmed in April 2017, a few months after Trump took office. 

Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris questioned the credibility of Kavanaugh's claims that the allegations against him were part of a smear campaign orchestrated by her party. (Saul Loeb/Reuters)

"How do you reconcile your statement about a conspiracy against you with the treatment of someone who was before this body not very long ago?" Harris asked.

Kavanaugh referred Harris to the evidence, pointing to witness statements and his own calendars from the time of the alleged assault. Kavanaugh had provided the committee with detailed pages from his high school calendar describing activities he had noted down during the summer of 1982, which were discussed several times throughout the day.

Watch Ford's full opening statement:

Ford describes alleged assault, talks about being 'afraid and ashamed' 18:29

Watch Kavanaugh's full opening statement:

Trump nominee defends his record, denies assaulting anyone 44:41

High stakes 

The stakes for both political parties — and the U.S. as a whole — are high. Republicans are pushing to seat Kavanaugh before the Nov. 6 midterm elections, when Senate control could fall to the Democrats and a replacement Supreme Court nominee could have even greater difficulty getting confirmed.

Kavanaugh's ascendance to the high court could help lock in a conservative majority for a generation, shaping dozens of rulings on contentious issues such as abortion and the environment.

But Republicans also risk rejection by female voters in November if they are seen as not fully respecting women and their allegations in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

More allegations

The politically explosive hearings evoke comparisons to 1991, when Anita Hill accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearing. Thomas denied Hill's accusation.

Two other women have publicly come forward with years-old allegations concerning Kavanaugh's behaviour in high school and college.

Julie Swetnick, left, a U.S. government employee, submitted an affidavit to the judiciary committee earlier this week in which she accused Kavanaugh of 'abusive and physically aggressive behaviour towards girls.' In a story by the New Yorker magazine, Deborah Ramirez, right, accused Kavanaugh of exposing his penis to her and forcing her to come into unwanted physical contact with his genitals during the 1983-84 academic year at Yale University. (Michael Avenatti/Associated Press, Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence/Associated Press)

Deborah Ramirez, whose allegations of sexual misconduct were reported earlier this week by The New Yorker magazine, accuses Kavanaugh of exposure and unwanted physical contact with his genitals during the 1983-84 academic year, when both attended Yale University.

Julie Swetnick, a longtime federal government employee, submitted an affidavit to the committee in which she accuses Kavanaugh of "abusive and physically aggressive behaviour towards girls." She also alleges being drugged and sexually assaulted by unspecified males at a party Kavanaugh and Judge attended.

Kavanaugh, when questioned Thursday about the other allegations, called the claims from Swetnick a "farce." 

If allegations made in the affidavit were proven to be false, Swetnick would be subject to charges of perjury.

Watch key moments from both Ford and Kavanaugh:

Watch the highlights from Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh's emotional testimonies. 15:33

With files from Associated Press and Reuters