By the time Sen. Dianne Feinstein huddled with the other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee in a room just off the Senate floor, the rumors were flying.
The senators already had heard talk of the mysterious letter from a woman. They knew something about a startling allegation about the Supreme Court nominee. They came into that room almost two weeks ago with one clear dilemma. "The question is, what should we do about this?" recalled Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was at the meeting.
Even surrounded by her fellow Democrats, the veteran California senator kept a close hold on the details in that late-night session. She was in possession of a letter that accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of a sexual assault back when he was in high school. She began to tell them about it. The woman did not want her name made public. Feinstein read excerpts, giving her colleagues only the information they needed to tackle the next step.
Democrats had few options. In the six weeks since Feinstein had received the letter, details had leaked. A report was breaking that night in The Intercept, an online publication. In a matter of hours, with confirmation to the court tantalizingly close, Kavanaugh's nomination would be in jeopardy. Republicans' uphill fight to hold control of Congress would face a new hurdle — just six weeks from Election Day. And 3,000 miles away, California college professor Christine Blasey Ford's life would be upended as the nation debated what did or didn't happen to her 36 years ago.
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Democrats, and Feinstein in particular, have faced fierce criticism from Republicans for keeping their secret until what they say was the eleventh hour. The timing suggests a coordinated ploy to sabotage a conservative jurist they oppose. Democrats argue they were pulled between the politics and the need to respect Ford's privacy.
This account of how that long-private, deeply personal allegation — which preceded a second accusation against Kavanaugh, this about alleged sexual misconduct in college — exploded into public is based on a dozen interviews with senators, aides and others. Some asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal details about the private discussions.
Though many of those interviewed disagreed fiercely on motives involved, all aligned on one clear truth: The letter and the story it told was a powder keg.
That night Durbin said they realized, "This has a life of its own."
It didn't start as a letter. It started with a phone call.
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In late July, Ford, a psychology professor who grew up in the same tony Maryland suburbs as Kavanaugh, called her congresswoman's office to discuss what she described as private matter. Days later, on a Friday afternoon in her California office, Rep. Anna Eshoo sat with Ford and listened to the story, in wrenching and difficult detail.
Ford said she'd been at a party with Kavanaugh and one of his friends. The two drunken teenage boys pulled her into a room, Ford says, where Kavanaugh pinned her on to a bed, groped her and tried to remove her swimsuit. When she resisted, he put his hand over her mouth, she says. She escaped into a bathroom only after Kavanaugh's friend jumped on the bed.
She was soft-spoken, Eshoo recalled of that first meeting with Ford, but with "an inner strength." She said, "She's not a pushover."
And she had a request.
"What she was seeking was that the story be in the right hands of responsible officials but that her anonymity be protected," the congresswoman recalled.
That weekend, Eshoo contacted Feinstein, a longtime colleague in California's Bay Area politics and the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. She told the senator she believed Ford. At Feinstein's recommendation, Eshoo asked Ford to outline the accusation in a letter.
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A week later, on July 30, Eshoo had Ford's letter hand-delivered to Feinstein's office in Washington.
"My sense was, I had a passed it over into very capable hands," Eshoo recalled.
Feinstein knows better than most the power of such an allegation.
She won her seat in 1992, shortly after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearing aired an allegation of sexual harassment against a Supreme Court nominee. For many women, the hearing televised the biases of the white, male senators. It spurred women across the country to run for office and to vote for women, Feinstein among them.
At Kavanaugh's public confirmation hearing earlier this month, she grilled the appellate court judge about his views on of Roe v. Wade, noting that unlike her, he did not endure a time when abortion was illegal.
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Now 85, Feinstein is a centrist facing a re-election fight against a liberal Los Angeles state legislator.
The allegation against Kavanaugh presented a clear problem for Feinstein.
If she told others on the committee — or even Democratic leader Chuck Schumer — about Ford's story without her permission, it risked "outing" Ford, violating a firm belief among advocacy groups that victims of sexual assault should not be compelled to relive the trauma in the pursuit of justice for the accused.
But withholding the information would shield Kavanaugh from having to answer to potentially devastating allegations — and deny Democrats a most potent weapon against a judge that could help solidify a conservative majority on the court.
Feinstein's team stayed in contact with Ford, assessing whether she would decide to come forward. They even considered hiring their own investigator to probe the allegations, but such a move would have run afoul of Senate rules requiring Democrats and Republicans on a committee to consult with each other.
Eshoo never talked to Ford again, although she had her chief of staff send regular messages checking in, she said. And Eshoo says she never told other lawmakers, not California's other senator, Kamala Harris, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, not her close friend, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Yet Ford was not far from her mind. "Every waking moment I had I was thinking about her," Eshoo said.
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Ford appeared to be preparing to come forward. She hired attorney Debra Katz, a well-connected Democrat with close ties to the #MeToo movement and the Hill. She took a polygraph test and passed, she would later tell The Washington Post. She collected notes from a counseling session where she mentioned the assault and Kavanaugh's name, she said.
By late August, even before Kavanaugh's public confirmation hearings, Ford says she decided not to go public. She decided her story probably wouldn't affect Kavanaugh's confirmation and would certainly be personally painful, she told the Post.
"Why suffer through the annihilation if it's not going to matter?" she said.
Feinstein, experienced as a member of the Senate's intelligence committee with keeping secrets, says she kept mum.
Someone else did not.
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Rumors of a sexual allegation trickled out. Kavanaugh allies at the White House started hearing rumors early in September, during the tail end of his confirmation hearing. They did not know details.
Frustrated Democrats and outside groups were agitating to know what was happening and how the situation was being handled. It would soon be too late to affect Kavanaugh's confirmation, they knew. Republicans planned a committee vote on Sept. 20, then a full Senate vote. They hoped to have him seated on the court by Oct. 1, the day the court began its new session.
The story about to break, the powder keg about to explode, the Judiciary Committee Democrats who gathered off the Senate floor that night decided Feinstein should take some action. She should send Ford's letter — her name would be redacted — to the FBI.
The action would, perhaps inevitably, fuel the story. Feinstein would soon announce the move. Republicans would soon accuse her of sitting on an allegation, hiding it from Republicans and revealing it at the last minute to ensure, at the least, a delay in the process.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who had known none of it, would be particularly upset that Feinstein, a longtime peer, had not shared the information.
Back in California, Feinstein's opponent in her re-election bid would accuse her of a "failure of leadership." She could have withheld the name and still made the allegation public, said Kevin de Leon, a Democrat in the California state Senate, and she should have confronted Kavanaugh with it at his hearing.
But Feinstein would claim she had no other choice.
The next day, the FBI acknowledged it had received some new information.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Jonathan Lemire, Catherine Lucey and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.