WASHINGTON — Republicans mounted a combative, coordinated drive Monday to salvage Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination as they fought to keep a second woman's allegation of long-ago sexual misconduct from derailing his confirmation. President Donald Trump leapt to his defense, the top Senate Republican accused Democrats of a "smear campaign" and an emotional Kavanaugh pledged to fight for his nomination and proclaimed, "I've never sexually assaulted anyone."
That declaration, remarkable for a nominee to the nation's highest court, came as Republicans embraced their newly aggressive stance and Kavanaugh's prospects dangled precariously. The similar tones and wording they used in defending him suggested a concerted effort to undermine the women's claims and portray an image of unity among GOP senators while pressing toward a confirmation vote.
In the run-up to an appearance by Kavanaugh and his main accuser at a dramatic Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Trump called the accusations "totally political" and among "the single most unfair, unjust things to happen to a candidate for anything." On Twitter Monday night, Trump accused Democrats of working hard to destroy a wonderful man ... with an array of False Accusations the likes of which have never been seen before!
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., angrily accused Democrats of slinging "all the mud they could manufacture" and promised a full Senate vote soon, but specified no date.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., retorted that if McConnell believed the allegations were a smear, "Why don't you call for an FBI investigation?" Schumer accused Republicans of "a rush job to avoid the truth."
Trump has made clear he won't order an FBI probe. McConnell said Thursday's Judiciary Committee hearing would proceed, and No. 2 Senate GOP leader, John Cornyn of Texas, said the panel could vote on sending Kavanaugh's nomination to the full Senate as early as Friday.
There were no immediate signs that the emergence of a second accuser had fatally wounded Kavanaugh's candidacy. Hoping to head that off, he and his GOP supporters went on offense, including the release of a letter he sent the Judiciary panel accusing his opponents of launching "smears, pure and simple."
Later, Kavanaugh and his wife sat for an interview on the conservative-friendly Fox News Channel, an extraordinary step for a Supreme Court nominee. Kavanaugh, 53, is currently a judge on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals.
Kavanaugh said he wasn't questioning "that perhaps Dr. Ford at some point in her life was sexually assaulted by someone at some place, but what I know is I've never sexually assaulted anyone."
Kavanaugh said while there were high school parties with beer and he wasn't perfect, "I'm a good person. I've led a good life." He said that he'd never done anything like the episodes his accusers have described and that he didn't have sexual intercourse until "many years" after high school.
"I'm not going to let false accusations drive me out of this process. I have faith in God, and I have faith in the fairness of the American people," he said.
On Sunday, The New Yorker magazine reported that Deborah Ramirez described a 1980s, alcohol-heavy Yale dormitory party at which she said Kavanaugh exposed himself, placed his penis in her face and caused her to touch it without her consent. Ford has said Kavanaugh tried removing her clothes and covered her mouth to prevent screams after he pinned her on a bed during a high school party.
Despite the forceful rhetoric by Kavanaugh and his GOP supporters, it remained unclear how three moderate Republican senators — Maine's Susan Collins, Arizona's Jeff Flake and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski — would react to the latest accusation. With the GOP's Senate control hanging on a razor-thin 51-49 margin, defections by any two Republican senators would seal his fate if all Democrats vote "no."
Collins said Monday she remained undecided about Kavanaugh.
Proceeding with Kavanaugh seems to give Republicans their best shot at filling the Supreme Court vacancy — and giving the court an increasingly conservative tilt — before November's elections, when GOP Senate control is in play.
Even if Republicans lose their Senate majority, they could still have time to confirm a nominee in a post-election lame duck session, but the GOP hasn't indicated that is under consideration. Delaying Kavanaugh's confirmation could allow time for doubts about him to take root or any fresh accusations to emerge.
Pushing forward with Kavanaugh has its own risks, besides an embarrassing defeat for Trump and the GOP. His nomination and the claims of sexual misconduct have stirred up women and liberal voters whose antipathy to Republicans has already been heightened by Trump's policies and his own fraught history of alleged sexual transgressions.
Dozens of people protesting Kavanaugh were arrested outside Collins' Capitol Hill office. Many wore black "Be A Hero" shirts and chanted slogans including "We will not be silenced."
Away from Washington, there were walkouts in support of Ford and Ramirez by dozens of liberal groups. The campaign was promoted on Twitter under the hashtag #BelieveSurvivors, and several Democrats in Congress — including members of the Senate Judiciary Committee vetting Kavanaugh — posted photos in support.
With increasing intensity, Republicans have attacked the credibility of Ford's and now Ramirez' accounts. They note that neither the accusers nor news organizations have found people willing to provide corroboration, even though both women have named people who they said were present at the alleged incidents.
Ramirez, who told The New Yorker that she'd been drinking at the time, was initially reluctant to speak publicly "partly because her memories contained gaps," the magazine said. After "six days of carefully assessing her memories and consulting with her attorney," she felt confident enough to go public, the report said.
The Associated Press tried reaching Ramirez at her home in Boulder, Colorado. A sign on her front door indicated she would have no comment.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway held a conference call with supporters during which she said there was a "vast left-wing conspiracy" to prevent Kavanaugh from winning confirmation, according to a participant who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private call.
Also jumping into the fray was the attorney who represents porn actress Stormy Daniels in her legal fight with Trump. Lawyer Michael Avenatti said he was representing a woman with information about high school-era parties attended by Kavanaugh and urged the Senate to investigate.
Avenatti, who has said he's considering a 2020 Democratic presidential bid, told the AP that he will disclose his client's identity in the coming days and that she is prepared to testify before the committee, as well as provide names of corroborating witnesses.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Ken Thomas, Catherine Lucey, Jonathan Lemire, Kevin Freking, Padmananda Rama and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.