By Lawrence Hurley and Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Wednesday stepped up his defence of his U.S. Supreme Court nominee, saying it was hard to imagine Brett Kavanaugh committed a sexual assault and that it would be unfortunate if his accuser did not testify before the Senate.
With Trump's effort to cement conservative control of the nation's highest court on a knife's edge, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley set a Friday morning deadline for Christine Blasey Ford to decide if she will talk to lawmakers.
Ford, a university professor in California, has said Kavanaugh, now a federal appeals court judge, sexually assaulted her in 1982 when both were high school students in Maryland. Kavanaugh has called Ford's allegation "completely false."
Grassley's committee, led by Trump's fellow Republicans, wants prepared testimony from her and an answer on whether she will accept its invitation to testify to the panel on Monday, either publicly or privately.
The committee also has invited Kavanaugh to testify on Monday.
Ford's lawyers said on Tuesday she would testify before the committee only if the FBI first investigates her allegation. The FBI has said it is not investigating the matter, a decision backed by Republicans including Trump.
"It is not the FBI's role to investigate a matter such as this," Grassley wrote, noting that members of the committee's staff are conducting an investigation and would be willing to speak to Ford at any time or place.
Her allegation has jeopardized Kavanaugh's nomination, which previously was on a track toward confirmation. The Senate must confirm nominees to lifetime posts on the Supreme Court.
"Look, if she shows up and makes a credible showing, that will be very interesting and we'll have to make a decision," Trump told reporters at the White House.
"But I can only say this: he's such an outstanding man - very hard for me to imagine that anything happened," Trump said.
"If she shows up, that would be wonderful. If she doesn't show up, that would be unfortunate," Trump added, referring to the committee testimony.
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. Ford's lawyers said in a letter to Grassley on Tuesday that she has faced "vicious harassment and even death threats" since coming forward on Sunday. Grassley said he was disturbed to learn of the threats.
"I hope that Dr. Ford will reconsider and testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday," Senator Susan Collins said on Twitter. She is a moderate Republican whose vote could be crucial to Kavanaugh's chances for Senate confirmation.
The confirmation fight comes just weeks before Nov. 6 mid-term congressional elections in which Democrats seek to win control of Congress from the Republicans.
Any defections from Republicans' narrow Senate majority could sink the nomination and deal a major setback to Trump. He has otherwise been successful at appointing more conservatives to the high court and the broader federal judiciary.
'FINDING THE TRUTH'
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."
The Justice Department has said the FBI sent Ford's initial letter making the allegation against Kavanaugh to the White House and considers its role in the matter complete.
Democrats have said the White House can order a more detailed FBI investigation, as occurred during the 1991 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.
Committee Republicans have planned for only Kavanaugh and Ford to testify, but Democrats want other witnesses, too.
Democratic Senator Doug Jones said Mark Judge, Kavanaugh's high school friend, should be subpoenaed if he refuses to testify. Ford has said Judge witnessed the alleged assault.
Judge's lawyer said in a letter to the committee on Tuesday Judge did not recall the incident and did not wish to testify.
Separately, a former classmate of Kavanaugh denied attending the party where the assault allegedly occurred. Patrick Smyth wrote to Grassley and top committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein. In the letter he said he did not see any "improper conduct" by Kavanaugh, a classmate at Georgetown Preparatory School, according to CNN, which obtained a copy of the letter.
A spokesman for the police department in Montgomery County, Maryland, site of the alleged incident, said it has no investigation ongoing.
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.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Doina Chiacu and Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham and Kevin Drawbaugh)
This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.
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Updated Date: Sep 20, 2018 02:05:23 IST