WASHINGTON (AFP) - President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh rebutted twin accusations of sexual misconduct in his youth on Monday (Sept 24), telling national television he "never" sexually assaulted anyone and was long a virgin.
With pressure mounting to put Kavanaugh's nomination on hold for the FBI to investigate his past - a day after a second woman came forward to accuse him - Trump stood firmly behind his embattled nominee, blasting the allegations as "totally political".
The bombshell claims, dating back to the conservative judge's high school and college days, threaten to derail what was seen as an all-but-certain confirmation to the lifelong post on the top court.
Instead, he now faces an explosive Senate showdown against the first of his accusers, university professor Christine Blasey Ford, who is set to testify against him on Thursday.
With his future and reputation on the line, Kavanaugh stepped up his counterattack, saying "I've never sexually assaulted anyone, not in high school, not ever. I've always treated women with dignity and respect."
"I did not have sexual intercourse or anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter," he told Fox News, appearing alongside his wife Ashley ahead of his own Senate testimony due after Ford's.
"I'm not going to let false accusations drive us out of this process," he added, repeatedly calling for a "fair process".
"I did not have sexual intercourse or anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter ... The girls from the schools I went to, and I, were friends."
"Through all these years that were in question, you were a virgin?" Fox News host Martha MacCallum asked.
"That's correct," Kavanaugh replied, adding that he did not have sex until "many years after" college.
After a dramatic week-long standoff, Kavanaugh's accuser Ford finally committed on Sunday to be questioned in a public hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is weighing Kavanaugh's nomination.
Ford alleges that a drunken Kavanaugh and another boy shut her in a room and tried to tear her clothes off at a high school beer party in suburban Washington around 1982, when she was 15 and he 17.
Just hours later, The New Yorker dropped a new bombshell, reporting that a second woman was accusing the Washington appeals court judge of sexual misconduct, while they were students at Yale University around 1983-84.
Deborah Ramirez, 53, says Kavanaugh exposed himself to her during a party, thrusting his genitals in her face and causing her to touch them without her consent, according to the magazine.
The allegations stand to derail a nomination that Republicans see as crucial to gaining conservative control of the high court for years.
They could also play decisively in the November midterm elections, where Republican control of both houses of Congress is under threat.
With emotions running high, dozens of protesters were removed from the US Capitol for unlawfully demonstrating against the judge's confirmation.
Trump, speaking in New York where he was attending the United Nations General Assembly, threw his full weight behind Kavanaugh.
"There's a chance that this could be one of the single most unfair, unjust things to happen to a candidate, but I am with Judge Kavanaugh," Trump said.
"For people to come out of the woodwork from 36 years ago and 30 years ago and never mention it, all of a sudden it happens - in my opinion, it's totally political." .
Lack of witnesses
Kavanaugh's approval was only two weeks ago considered a done deal, with all Republicans in the narrowly divided Senate appearing set to back him.
But the allegations have left some Republican senators - especially two women who have spoken out in the past about sexual abuse of women - under pressure to weigh the accusers' stories.
The year-old #MeToo movement against sexual harassment also has politicians wary of angering women voters.
Yet Trump's defiant stance could also stir his Republican base to head to the polls in November, frustrated at what many see as a cynical attempt to sink a qualified nominee.
Kavanaugh argues that no witnesses have yet come forward to corroborate either woman's account. Both accusers have acknowledged memory lapses, which could weaken their claims.
Democrats say that is all the more reason to halt the nomination process and let the FBI, which carries out background investigations for candidates to high positions, investigate them.
"There is only one way to get to the bottom of these allegations against Judge Kavanaugh and prevent the nation from being thrown into further turmoil: an independent background check investigation by the FBI," said Senator Chuck Schumer, the senior Democrat in the Senate.