WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham had kept quiet during Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that she was sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 1982.
But by the time it was his turn to speak during Kavanaugh’s rebuttal before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the South Carolina Republican was animated and angry.
On Thursday afternoon, a visibly shaken Graham told Kavanaugh that the conservative federal judge was a “victim” of Democratic attempts to derail his confirmation.
“I cannot imagine what you and your family have gone through,” Graham said. “I hope you’re on the Supreme Court. … That’s exactly where you belong.”
To Republicans who might be wavering in whether to confirm Kavanaugh if there is even a hint of doubt about his character, Graham warned that voting “no” would be “legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics.”
And in an especially sobering moment, Graham turned on Democrats in scathingly personal terms, perhaps undoing years of cooperation that had become his trademark in the Senate.
“Boy, I hate to do this, because these have been my friends … [but] what you want is to destroy this guy’s life, hold his seat open, and hope you win [the presidency] in 2020,” said Graham of Democrats. “Boy, you guys want power. God, I hope you never get it.”
Graham has emerged as one of Kavanaugh’s most full-throated defenders.
He began the day of the marathon hearing with news interviews on CBS and Fox before heading to the hearing. He is a senior committee member, in line for the chairmanship in the next Congress if Republicans keep the Senate.
He said he had spoken to people at the White House about his rounds on the conservative media circuit to decry the accusations against Kavanaugh as Democrats try hard to take down a Republican nominee.
“I said, ‘Hang in there. Just look at each accusation, they’re all crumbling,’ ” Graham said.
He had also spoken personally with President Donald Trump: “He thinks this thing is a big debacle.”
Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, tweeted her praise of Graham after his scathing indictment of Democrats, which was carried on live television.
“[Graham] has more decency and courage than every Democrat member of the committee combined,” she said. “God bless him.”
But other interactions throughout Graham’s day show just how perilous his position might be.
Unlike immigration or health care — the last debates on Capitol Hill where Graham played a starring role and at times grew fiery with emotion — Ford delivered an emotional testimony in the midst of the #MeToo era, a national movement where men are being challenged to believe women’s stories of sexual abuse, harassment and assault.
Graham stressed that it’s not that he doesn’t believe Ford was assaulted; it’s that he doesn’t believe she was assaulted by Kavanaugh specifically.
“It’s not about, ‘Do I believe her,’ ” he said in an interview. “Is the allegation against Brett Kavanaugh corroborated in any significant detail? Is his denial any less believable than her accusation? Anything in the record suggests he’s not this kind of person.”
But the optics were not always great for Graham on Thursday. Hours before his afternoon outburst in the committee hearing, he had brushed past Robyn Swirling, 32, a Washington, D.C., resident who told the senator in a Capitol Hill hallway that she had once been raped.
“I’m sorry,” the South Carolina Republican said, not breaking his stride as he headed into an elevator. “You needed to go to the cops.”
Separately, Graham refused to engage with a handful of protesters surrounding him with signs that read “I believe survivors” and “I believe Christine.” At one point, a few activists began screaming, “Shame, shame.”
At the hearing itself, during Ford’s testimony, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) read aloud a portion of Graham’s 2015 autobiography where he described the experience of defending rape victims during his years as an attorney.
“I learned how much unexpected courage from a deep and hidden place it takes for a rape victim or sexually abused child to testify against their assailants,” Blumenthal read from Graham’s memoir.
Graham was not fazed by the reminder from that earlier time in his life.
“I think it’s absolutely true,” Graham said later to reporters. “But I’ve also defended people who were accused of rape who almost killed themselves and eventually got acquitted. So it goes both ways.”
Graham chose not to question Ford at the hearing. The committee’s 11 Republicans instead let Rachel Mitchell, an Arizona sex crimes prosecutor hired by the GOP staff, to quiz Ford during their allotted speaking time.
He said having a woman asking questions was the suggestion of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who like others were concerned about the appearance of having only Republican men question a woman alleging sexual assault.
Graham denied this was a consideration for him.
“The reason I don’t feel that way is nobody accused me of not being able to judge [Sonia] Sotomayor and [Elena] Kagan,” Graham said of the two female Supreme Court justices whose nominations he supported despite their being nominated by a Democratic president, Barack Obama.
“If you were willing to vote for [Democrats’] nominees, you’re a wonderful person,” Graham added. “If [you] want to defend a conservative who is being savaged, all of a sudden you don’t care about women, blah blah blah.”
He hinted earlier in the day that he might speak up during his turn to question Kavanaugh in the event he felt Democrats were “playing … cheap politics.”
Ultimately, Graham could not hold back.
“When you see Sotomayor and Kagen, tell ‘em Lindsey says hello,” Graham told Kavanaugh on Thursday. “Because I voted for both of them.”
Kate Irby, Kellen Browning and Lindsay Wise of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.