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Kavanaugh’s GOP defenders on the hot seat at hearing

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) seems to have gone from intent on confirming Kavanaugh to personally offended by one of the latest allegations, while Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn (left) may need to tone down his defense. | Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Lindsey Graham complained that Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers are making him out to be “Bill Cosby.” Orrin Hatch blasted “phony” accusations in The New Yorker. And John Cornyn urged the Senate to get on with a confirmation vote before more “reckless” allegations are lodged against the Supreme Court nominee.

All three Republicans will be on the dais Thursday when Ford appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a hearing that will determine whether Kavanaugh lands on the high court. They’ve been Kavanaugh’s most aggressive defenders — and appear most at risk of appearing dismissive of Kavanaugh’s initial accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.

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The GOP has hired Rachel Mitchell, an experienced Arizona prosecutor, to head off ugly confrontations with Ford. But Graham, Hatch and Cornyn aren’t ruling out asking their own questions on Thursday.

“The people who are criticizing us are hypocrites. We’re not going to let a thousand accusations” stop him, said Graham, perhaps the most aggressive Kavanaugh defender. “When a woman says something, she needs to be heard. But when you accuse someone of a crime, the accuser needs to be tested.”

Graham, in particular, seems to have gone from being intent on Kavanaugh’s confirmation to being personally offended by one of the latest allegations, brought by a client of Michael Avenatti, that Kavanaugh participated in gang rapes. “If you’re a serial rapist, it’s not for a few years,” Graham said.

Cornyn and Hatch, by contrast, seemed aware that Kavanaugh’s most ardent defenders might need to tone it down on national TV. Hatch had said he thought Ford was “mixed up;” now that the hearing is near, he says he’s willing to hear her out despite his strong support for Kavanaugh.

And though Cornyn wants to keep Kavanaugh’s nomination moving forward before more accusations surface, he said that Ford needs to be heard in a dignified manner.

“We know what’s happening on the other side: character assassination of a good man,” Cornyn said Wednesday. “But we want to be respectful of all women who make allegations of sexual assault. I’m going to treat Dr. Ford the same way I would want my daughters or my wife or my mother treated if they were in a similar circumstance.”

Along with a handful of other Republicans, Cornyn, Graham and Hatch have led the GOP’s counteroffensive against the allegations from Ford, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick. The senators called the cascade of accusations a smear campaign to discredit Kavanaugh and derail his confirmation. And though they say they want to hear Ford’s side of the story, at the same time they’re demanding Kavanaugh be confirmed, and now.

Thursday’s hearing, of course, could change everything: The nation will be watching Ford and Kavanaugh give their testimony regarding the alleged encounter 36 years ago, and who comes across as more credible could well determine whether Kavanaugh ends up on the high court.

In the lead-up to the hearing, some Republicans have been uneasy listening to their colleagues’ charged language about Kavanaugh’s accusers.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate, in my opinion. We really don’t know that much, which is why we’re having a hearing,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who did not mention fellow senators by name. “Do I believe her testimony? I haven’t seen her testimony.”

“It’s concerning that a lot of people have already announced their position,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “I don’t want this to be political. And that’s why [Mitchell] is being used, to keep politics out.”

Brett Kavanaugh

On the floor Wednesday, Flake tore into those who believe that Ford “is part of some kind of vast conspiracy from start to finish to smear Judge Kavanaugh.” But while Republicans have tried to be sensitive to Ford’s allegation — Graham said he believes “something happened to her” — they also have made clear that for more than 40 of the 51 Senate Republicans, Kavanaugh’s word counts for more.

“They think they are not doing damage. They think they are sticking up for a nominee,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). “I get the desire. But the desire today has to be that we do not make the same mistakes as other institutions.”

While Republicans have been blocking and tackling for Kavanaugh in the media and raising questions about Ford’s recollection, which she acknowledges is fuzzy on some details, the GOP quickly realized that the optics of 11 men trying to pick apart Ford’s story would play poorly with the public. Hence the outside attorney, the appointment of which Democrats say is damning in its own way.

“Since they’ve hired someone to be their questioner, they are clearly not comfortable with their ability to get through questioning without embarrassing themselves. So they’ve already established that proposition by bringing in a ringer,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Yet Cornyn, a former Texas Supreme Court judge, said he’s willing to jump into the fray if he feels it’s needed. He and other Republicans have pointed to the fact that three witnesses whom Ford says were at the party where Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted her have said they have no memory or information about the event.

“There’s gaps and there’s inconsistencies, but I expect that will be covered by the staff counsel. If it’s not then I’ll reserve the right to ask questions,” he said. “Dr. Ford identified three people who were allegedly present who didn’t have any recollection of any such event occurring. That’s one way you provide evidence is provide corroboration.”

Graham and Hatch were less clear on whether they might ask questions at the hearing. But the South Carolina senator seethed over Avenatti’s latest client alleging that Kavanaugh was known for drugging women and gang raping them, turning his sites to Julie Swetnick, the third woman with allegations about Kavanaugh, as he prepares to come face to face with Ford.

“I find it pretty hard to believe that you would go to 10 parties where people are getting drugged and gang raped,” Graham said. “If I were a true victim, the last person I would go to is Michael Avenatti.”

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