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WASHINGTON — With her voice cracking but her composure intact, an emotional Christine Blasey Ford made her first appearance in public on Thursday, telling a rapt Senate panel about the terror she felt on a summer day more than 30 years ago, when, she said, a drunken Brett M. Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, tried to rip her clothes off and clapped his hand over her mouth to muffle her cries for help.
“I believed he was going to rape me,” she said, adding, “It was hard for me to breathe and I believed that Brett was going to accidentally kill me.”
The hearing riveted the nation, as the fate of Judge Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, hung in the balance. Televisions across America — including on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange — were tuned in. Women were calling C-Span to share their own experiences of sexual assault.
As Dr. Blasey testified, Republican senators sat in mute witness, forgoing questioning and giving over their time to an outside lawyer, Rachel Mitchell, whose clipped questioning gave the hearing a prosecutorial tone. She seemed to have little success rattling the witness or undermining her story. But the alternative scenario — Republican male senators handling the questions — may have been worse. During a break in the hearing, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, told reporters: “I don’t think she’s uncredible. I think she’s an attractive, good witness.” Asked for clarity, he said, “In other words, she’s pleasing.”
Democrats applauded Dr. Blasey’s courage and questioned her gently; when one asked about her strongest memory of the assault, she said it was of Judge Kavanaugh and his friend laughing as they piled on top of her: “The uproarious laughter between the two and having fun at my expense.”
It was an extraordinary public appearance by a woman who never intended to become a public figure. Dr. Blasey, a research psychologist at Stanford, also swatted away any notion that she was mistaking someone else for the young Mr. Kavanaugh. She was asked by at least three Democratic senators if she was certain Judge Kavanaugh had assaulted her; three times she said yes.
“I am asking you to address this new defense of mistaken identity directly,” one of those Democrats, Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, asked her as she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Dr. Ford, with what degree of certainty do you believe Judge Kavanaugh assaulted you?”
Dr. Blasey, who sometimes uses her married name, Ford, responded unequivocally.
“One hundred percent,” she said.
For Judge Kavanaugh, and the nation, the stakes could not be higher: If confirmed, the judge would replace the court’s swing vote — the retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — with a reliable conservative, shaping American jurisprudence and pushing it toward the right for decades to come. Judge Kavanaugh is to testify Thursday afternoon; he has vigorously denied Dr. Blasey’s accusation and says he is eager to clear his name.
Playing out against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, just weeks before a midterm election that has already energized female voters and Democrats, Dr. Blasey’s testimony occurs at the combustible intersection of politics and women’s rights. It evokes strong memories of one of Washington’s most memorable judicial confirmations: the 1991 hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment by the law professor Anita F. Hill.
The facts of Dr. Blasey’s story are already well known, but hearing her detail them, with clarity and sometimes confessing that she did not remember specifics, was compelling. Her main challenge is to prove that she is credible, and she appeared to have little trouble doing so. During a break in the hearing, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and the Judiciary Committee chairman, was asked if he found her credible.
He demurred at first, but then said: “Let me suggest this. I know that we’ve got to take what she says very seriously.”
Dr. Blasey spoke, at times, in unusually clinical tones, almost like an expert witness for her own testimony. Asked how she remembers that it was Judge Kavanaugh and not some other person who attacked her, she answered with a scientific description of how the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and epinephrine code “memories into the hippocampus and so the trauma-related experience is locked there whereas other details kind of drift.”
She told senators that the experience “dramatically altered my life for a long time,” and during her college years she struggled academically because of it. And it has affected her in sometimes unusual ways. When she and her husband were remodeling their home, she told senators, she insisted on having a second front door — an obvious reference to how she escaped the home where she said the assault occurred, by running down the stairs and out the front door.
The portrait of the young Judge Kavanaugh painted by Dr. Blasey and Democrats is a far cry from the image the judge projected at his previous confirmation hearings, where he portrayed himself as a churchgoing father of two daughters and a beloved basketball coach for their teams.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the committee, noted that Judge Kavanaugh has previously made statements that he never “drank so much he couldn’t remember what happened.” That statement, the senator said, is at odds with one given by Judge Kavanaugh’s freshman roommate at Yale, who has said that the young Judge Kavanaugh was “frequently, incoherently drunk,” and that when he was, he became “aggressive and belligerent.”
Speaking calmly, Dr. Blasey used her opening statement to recount how she met Judge Kavanaugh, when their social circles at their elite private schools intersected during her freshman or sophomore year, when she was 14 or 15. She said she had been friendly with a classmate of Judge Kavanaugh, who introduced them. “This is how I met Brett Kavanaugh, the boy who sexually assaulted me,” she said.
One evening in the summer of 1982, after a day of diving at the Columbia Country Club, she attended a “spur of the moment” gathering at a nearby home, she told senators. She said it was clear that Mr. Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, had been drinking, and that she had just had one beer. When she went up the narrow staircase to use the restroom, she said, she was pushed from behind into a bedroom.
“Brett and Mark came into the bedroom and locked the door behind them,” she said. “There was music playing in the bedroom. It was turned up louder by either Brett or Mark once we were in the room. I was pushed on the bed and Brett got on top of me and he began running his hands over my body and grinding into me. I yelled, hoping that someone downstairs might hear me and I tried to get away from him, but his weight was heavy.”
She said Judge Kavanaugh had a hard time removing her clothes because she was wearing a one-piece bathing suit underneath. Eventually, after Mr. Judge jumped on top of them and they tumbled off the bed, she was able to escape, she said.
“I ran inside the bathroom and locked the door,” she said. “I waited until I heard Brett and Mark leave the bedroom laughing and loudly walked down the narrow stairway, pinballing off the walls on the way down. I waited and when I did not hear them come back up the stairs, I left the bathroom, went down the same stairwell through the living room and left the house. I remember being on the street and feeling an enormous sense of relief that I escaped that house and that Brett and Mark were not coming outside after me.”
The hearing comes amid mounting allegations of sexual impropriety against Judge Kavanaugh — accusations that continued to erupt as late as Wednesday, roiling the Capitol and prompting demands from Democrats that the confirmation vote be delayed. Republicans, however, show no signs of acceding to those demands; they have scheduled a Judiciary Committee vote on Judge Kavanaugh for Friday, and Republican leaders have said they expect the full Senate to vote next week.
Dr. Blasey testified in the small wood-paneled room that the Judiciary Committee ordinarily uses for business — not the much larger venue where Judge Kavanaugh’s earlier confirmation hearings took place. Access to the public and the press is extremely limited, at Dr. Blasey’s request; her lawyers have said she does not want to be re-traumatized in telling her experience.