By Roberta Rampton and Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday stepped up his defence of his U.S. Supreme Court pick, saying it is hard to imagine Brett Kavanaugh committed a sexual assault and that it would be unfortunate if the nominee’s accuser does not testify before the Senate.
Trump made his remarks a day after lawyers for Christine Blasey Ford, a university professor in California, said she would testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee only if the FBI first investigates her allegation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in 1982 when both were high school students in Maryland.
The FBI has said it is not investigating the matter. Ford’s demand cast doubt on whether a hearing planned by the committee for Monday to hear testimony from Kavanaugh, who has denied the allegation, and Ford will occur.
The allegation has placed the nomination of Kavanaugh, a conservative federal appeals court judge, in peril. The Senate must confirm nominees to lifetime posts of the top U.S. court.
“Look, if she shows up and makes a credible showing, that will be very interesting and we’ll have to make a decision. But I can only say this: he’s such an outstanding man – very hard for me to imagine that anything happened,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
The Republican president said he wanted the Senate confirmation process to play out.
“If she shows up, that would be wonderful. If she doesn’t show up, that would be unfortunate,” Trump added.
“I think he’s an extraordinary man. I think he’s a man of great intellect, as I’ve been telling you, and he had this unblemished record. This is a very tough thing for him and his family. And we want to get it over with,” Trump said.
Ford has accused Kavanaugh of attacking her and trying to remove her clothing while he was drunk at a party in 1982 when he was 17 years old and she was 15, an allegation Kavanaugh has called “completely false.” Ford’s lawyers said in a letter sent on Tuesday to Senator Chuck Grassley, the Judiciary Committee’s Republican chairman, that she has faced “vicious harassment and even death threats” since coming forward on Sunday.
The accusations have roiled a confirmation process that once appeared smooth for Kavanaugh, who if confirmed could consolidate the conservative grip on the top U.S. court.
The confirmation fight comes just weeks before Nov. 6 congressional elections in which Democrats are seeking to win control of Congress from Trump’s fellow Republicans.
At the U.S. Capitol, Grassley said he was trying to get Ford to testify by Monday, publicly or privately. He did not answer questions about letting the FBI investigate.
“I’m concentrating on doing everything I can to make sure Dr. Ford is comfortable to testify,” Grassley told reporters. “We have to make plans for her to come and that’s what I’m concentrating on.”
Republican panel member Lindsey Graham said on Twitter that requiring an FBI investigation of a 36-year-old allegation “is not about finding the truth, but delaying the process till after the midterm elections.”
In a statement on Tuesday Grassley had said, “Nothing the FBI or any other investigator does would have any bearing on what Dr. Ford tells the committee, so there is no reason for any further delay.”
The Justice Department has said that the FBI sent the initial letter Ford wrote making the allegation against Kavanaugh to the White House and considers its role in the matter to be complete.
Democrats have said the White House can order a more detailed FBI investigation, as occurred in 1991 during the confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas after he was accused of sexual harassment. Republicans have said the FBI would be doing nothing more than what committee staffers could achieve by interviewing Kavanaugh and Ford.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday showed a growing number of Americans opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination. In the poll, conducted from Sept. 11-17, 36 percent of U.S. adults surveyed did not want Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, up 6 percentage points from a similar poll a month earlier, while 31 percent favoured Kavanaugh’s appointment.
CNN reported that a former classmate of Kavanaugh denied attending the high school party where the nominee is accused of assaulting Ford.
Patrick J. Smyth sent a letter to Grassley and top committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein in which he denied seeing any “improper conduct” by Kavanaugh, a classmate at Georgetown Preparatory School, according to CNN, which obtained a copy of the letter.
“I understand that I have been identified by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford as the person she remembers as ‘PJ’ who supposedly was present at the party she described in her statements to the Washington Post,” Smyth said in his letter, CNN reported.
“I am issuing this statement today to make it clear to all involved that I have no knowledge of the party in question; nor do I have any knowledge of the allegations of improper conduct she has levelled against Brett Kavanaugh.”
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Doina Chiacu and Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)