WASHINGTON (AP) — After holding his tongue for a week, President Donald Trump sarcastically assailed the woman claiming a decades-old sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, tweeting that if the episode was "as bad as she says," she or "her loving parents" surely would have reported it to law enforcement.
Trump's searing reproach of Christine Blasey Ford on Friday defied the Senate Republican strategy — and the advice of White House aides — of not disparaging her while firmly defending his nominee and the tight timetable for confirming him.
The comment came as the California psychology professor's attorneys sought agreement from Republicans on terms under which she might testify at a Judiciary Committee hearing next week. That showdown, should it occur, could play out on national television and settle whether Kavanaugh's nomination survives.
The president's tweet brought blistering rejoinders from Democrats and a mix of silence and sighs of regret from his own party. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who hasn't declared support for Kavanaugh, called the remark "appalling."
It was also the latest provocation — from a man who's faced a litany of sexual misconduct allegations himself — of moderate female voters whose support Republicans will need to fend off a robust Democratic drive to capture congressional control in November's elections.
Kavanaugh, the 53-year-old District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals judge, has repeatedly denied the accusation from his teenage years. Ford, 51, says an inebriated Kavanaugh pinned her on a bed during a high school party in the 1980s, muffled her screams and tried undressing her before she escaped.
Minutes after Trump's tweet on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell played verbal hardball of his own, drawing a standing ovation when he assured a gathering of evangelical activists that the conservative Kavanaugh would soon be a justice.
Acknowledging the tumult Ford's accusation has caused, McConnell said at the Values Voter Summit, "Keep the faith, don't get rattled by it. We're going to plow right through and do our jobs."
McConnell has wanted to whisk Kavanaugh to confirmation before the court's new term starts Oct. 1 — and before November's elections. He still hopes to do so despite the emergence of Ford's allegations.
Republicans have pressured Ford to testify at a hearing this Monday, a session at which Kavanaugh has already said he'd appear. In bargaining that continued Friday, her attorneys conditionally offered an appearance for Thursday, saying Monday wasn't possible.
Ford also wants the government to provide security. Her lawyers say she's relocated her family due to death threats. She planned to meet with FBI agents in the San Francisco area to discuss those threats, said a person close to her who would describe her plans only anonymously.
Ford's attorneys want Ford to testify after Kavanaugh, not appear in the same room as him and face no questioning by outside attorneys. Republicans, whose 11 committee members are all male, have looked for a female lawyer to handle Ford's examination.
But it seemed almost certain that Kavanaugh would testify last, a position attorneys believe is advantageous because it allows a rebuttal of any charges.
Until Friday, Trump's most caustic comment had been an expression of incredulity that Kavanaugh had committed an assault. His relatively restrained responses had some White House aides believing they had tamed his notoriously undisciplined impulses.
"The president doesn't need anybody to tell him. He does the right thing," presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters Friday morning when asked if she'd advised him to not criticize Ford.
Minutes later he erupted from Las Vegas, where he had spent the night after a political rally.
"I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!" he wrote.
The remark infuriated many who've long argued that women are frequently overwhelmed, confused and ashamed by sexual attacks and keep silent or even bury the memory without confiding with anyone. Using a combination of Justice Department statistics and Census Bureau surveys, the government says fewer than 1 in 4 rapes and sexual assaults were reported to police in 2016.
Ford has said she never mentioned the alleged incident to anyone until 2012, when she revealed it during a marriage counseling session with her husband.
"A highly offensive misunderstanding of surviving trauma," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tweeted about Trump's attack. Sen Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called it "another disgusting attempt to discredit Dr. Ford," while Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., tweeted, "It's sad but not surprising that she's been met with an utter lack of decency by elected leaders of this country."
McConnell's confident prediction of Kavanaugh's impending confirmation came as the nomination seemed to be gaining momentum. GOP senators who'd voiced concern about Ford's charges had stopped short of expressing opposition to Kavanaugh, and growing numbers of Republicans said it was about time to vote.
Still, Kavanaugh's fate remained unclear, with some saying that a hearing featuring him and Ford would be decisive and risky for the GOP — and not helped by Trump's tweet.
Ari Fleischer, who was spokesman for President George W. Bush, said in an interview that the tweet did not help party leaders corral moderates Collin and Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose support in the 51-49 GOP-run Senate would likely be pivotal.
"Nobody has anything wired," Fleischer said. "We're watching events unfold. If she testifies, all bets are off."
Trump's tweet also opened the door for political foes to remind voters of his own history of sexual misadventures.
During his 2016 presidential campaign alone, he was accused by more than a dozen women of sexual misconduct and endured the release of a 2005 video that captured him boasting about groping women. He's also defended prominent men accused of sexual misbehavior, including former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes and Roy Moore, the Alabama GOP Senate candidate who was defeated after allegations of seeking relationships with underage women.
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