Washington: U.S President Donald Trump stood firmly by his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh Monday after a woman accused the conservative judge of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers.
But Trump acknowledged there could be a delay in approving the nominee as pressure built for Congress to reopen hearings to review the bombshell allegation.
“Judge Kavanaugh is one of the finest people I have ever known,” Trump told reporters from the Oval Office.
“Never even had a little blemish on his record.”
He described as “ridiculous” the suggestion that Kavanaugh might withdraw his candidacy.
“I think he’s on track, very much on track,” Trump said. “If it takes a little delay, it’ll take a little delay.”
Trump did not comment directly on the claim by California university professor Christine Blasey Ford that a drunken Kavanaugh and one of his friends trapped her in a room and attempted to pull her clothes off at a high school party in 1982 — although he questioned why she had not come forward sooner.
After Ford’s lawyer said she was ready to testify under oath about the incident, Democrats with the apparent support of some Republicans urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to postpone a vote on the nomination scheduled for Thursday.
Kavanaugh, whose approval had previously appeared certain, denied the allegations and said he was willing to return to the committee to answer the charge.
“I have never done anything like what the accuser describes — to her or to anyone,” he said in a statement released by the White House.
“I am willing to talk to the Senate Judiciary Committee in any way the Committee deems appropriate to refute this false allegation from 36 years ago and defend my integrity.”
The explosive assault claim makes the Supreme Court the latest US institution to be rocked by fallout from the year-old #MeToo movement exposing sexual misconduct.
Trump questioned why the accusation became public only on Friday, after Kavanaugh had undergone four days of questioning in early September.
“This is something that should have been brought up long before this. They had the information in July as I understand it,” he said — referring to Democratic lawmakers who were contacted by Ford before she went public.
The allegation now threatens to inject a potentially heated “he said-she said” battle into the looming midterm congressional elections, with Republican control of the House of Representatives and the Senate at stake.
And it stands to derail one of the most consequential appointments to the nine-seat high court in decades.
Evenly balanced for years, the court is expected to tilt decidedly conservative if Kavanaugh is approved, potentially threatening women’s access to abortion, restrictions on presidential powers, and efforts to curb gun ownership.
It was not clear if the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee would reopen hearings.
Chairman Chuck Grassley said in a statement that Ford “deserves to be heard”, but he proposed the committee hold phone calls with Ford and Kavanaugh.
Moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins, whose support is crucial to Kavanaugh’s nomination, said both the judge and his accuser should testify under oath.
“I don’t know enough about Dr Ford and her allegations yet” to reach a judgement, Collins said in the Senate Monday afternoon.
“I have said that in order for me to assess the credibility of these allegations, that I want to have both individuals come before the Senate Judiciary Committee and testify under oath.” “Obviously, if Judge Kavanaugh has lied about what happened, that would be disqualifying.” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s top female aide, also said Ford should be heard out.
“This woman should not be insulted and she should not be ignored,” Conway said.
Ford’s lawyer, Debra Katz, told US media her client had been ambivalent about the pressure that would come with speaking out publicly.
She first contacted lawmakers about her experience in July, but initially insisted on remaining remain anonymous, saying the 1982 incident, when she and Kavanaugh both attended private schools in suburban Washington, had been a source of lasting trauma.
“She’s now going to have to live with the tremendous efforts by people to annihilate her and to try to discredit her,” Katz told CNN.
Ford’s challenge evoked the 1991 battle of over the Republican nomination of Clarence Thomas, now the court’s most conservative justice.
During his hearings allegations from a former colleague, law school professor Anita Hill, surfaced accusing him of repeated sexual harassment when they worked together.
Hill endured a brutal assault on her personal reputation in hearings and in conservative media, and the all-male Republicans on the committee ultimately backed Thomas.
This time, the Republicans on the committee are also all men.