Updated at 2:26 p.m. ET
Christine Blasey Ford, the first woman to publicly accuse Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct, began her emotional testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday morning. The committee reconvened for the highly unusual session after Ford alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she and Kavanaugh were both in high school more than 30 years ago. Kavanaugh has denied all of the sexual misconduct allegations against him. He will be questioned separately later in the day.
"I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school," Ford told the committee as she appeared to fight back tears.
Ford said she didn't remember all of the specifics such as the date or place of the alleged attack, which has led some to question the veracity of her claims. But, with her voice cracking, she did recall certain vivid details, adding "Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense."
Ford also said the details she does remember "about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget. They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me episodically as an adult."
When she was 15 and Kavanaugh was 17, the two ended up at the same party. Ford said she had one beer, while Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, "were visibly drunk." When she went upstairs to use the restroom, Kavanaugh and Judge pushed her into a bedroom and locked the door. Ford claimed Kavanaugh pushed her onto the bed and "began running his hands over my body and grinding his hips into me."
"I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from screaming. This was what terrified me the most, and has had the most lasting impact on my life. It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me," Ford said.
Ford also insisted she had no political agenda in coming forward with her accusations, telling lawmakers, "I am an independent person and I am no one's pawn."
The high-stakes hearing will help determine whether President Trump's effort to remake the nation's highest court with the conservative jurist to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy is successful. Ford's testimony comes after a year in which the rise and the cultural influence of the #MeToo movement has raised sensitivity to the accounts of sexual assault victims, a significant cultural shift since 1991 when Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas during his confirmation process.
Speaking Wednesday during a press conference, Trump said the allegations against Kavanaugh "are all false to me." But the president indicated he would be watching Ford's testimony to determine whether she is believable, and even suggested he might withdraw the nomination based on what occurred Thursday. In the same remarks, the president also defended Kavanaugh and criticized the multiple allegations against the judge as a "big, fat con job" perpetrated by Democrats trying to stop the confirmation of a conservative judge to the Supreme Court.
The hearing got off to a tense start, exposing the deep partisan divides that have colored the accusations from Ford and other women. Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, first acknowledged that Kavanaugh, Ford and their families have "received vile threats" since the allegations became public.
"What they have endured ought to be considered by all of us as unacceptable and a poor reflection on the state of civility in our democracy," Grassley said.
But then he went on to chastise the committee's ranking member, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for a delay in giving the full committee the private letter setting forth the allegations against Kavanaugh that she received back in July from Ford, who is a constituent of Feinstein's in California. Ford had first requested her allegations remain private, but as she later told the committee, when it became clear her name would be public, she then told her story to The Washington Post.
Grassley also pointed out that many of the witnesses Ford has identified deny that the party in question took place. He also defended hiring an outside attorney to assist with questioning during Thursday's hearing, saying he saw "no basis for complaint [from Democrats] other than just plain politics." Rachel Mitchell is a sex crimes prosecutor from Arizona who has pushed for best practices in investigations to protect and serve victims of assault.
Feinstein pushed back during her subsequent remarks, pointing out that most sexual assaults go unreported and that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men will experience some form of sexual violence in their lives.
She warned colleagues that "the entire country is watching how we handle these allegations" and she criticized a "rush to judgment" on the allegations and quick push for confirmation, calling it a "real question of character for someone who is asking for a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court."
"This is not a trial for Dr. Ford. This is a job interview for Brett Kavanaugh," Feinstein said, asking, "Is he the best we can do?"
The hearing pivoted somewhat awkwardly between Republican legislators ceding their time to Mitchell, who questioned Ford about her past statements to the media and her specific memories about the circumstances of the alleged assault. Among her questions, the prosecutor tried to poke holes in Ford's fear of flying, which Ford said was triggered by PTSD following the alleged assault. And Mitchell pressed Ford about the polygraph she took to back up her claims — which Ford revealed she took outside Baltimore just after she had attended her grandmother's funeral.
Ford explained how the incident had affected her throughout her life — from struggling academically during her undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to difficulty in forming relationships and friendships and ultimately pressing for a second front door during a remodel of her California home.
Near the end of her questioning, Mitchell reminded Ford that the other people she identified as being at the party have told the committee, under penalty of felony, that they did not remember the gathering or the incident in question.
"I don't expect that P.J. and Leland would remember this evening," Ford responded. "It was a very unremarkable party...because nothing happened to them that evening."
Democratic senators used their time to largely reiterate their support for Ford, bemoan how she was being treated and criticize that a further probe by the FBI — as Ford has requested — was not undertaken.
"You have given America an amazing teaching moment," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told the college professor. "You have inspired and you have enlightened America. You have inspired and given courage to women to come forward, as they have done to every one of our offices and many other public places."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted he was also in the Senate during hearings that have drawn obvious parallels to this one — Hill's testimony during the Thomas confirmation hearings.
Leahy said the Senate "failed" Hill back in 1991, and "I am concerned we are doing a lot less for these three women today."
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a former district attorney and state attorney general, told Ford that, "I believe you, and I believe many Americans across this country believe you."
The Judiciary Committee released a timeline late on Wednesday night that indicated it had interviewed two men who believed they, not Kavanaugh, were the ones in the episode described by Ford.
Ford categorically denied that could have been possible, saying she was "100 percent" certain that it was Kavanaugh who allegedly assaulted her.
The psychology professor sometimes explained clinically how what happened to her more than three decades ago was "seared" in her memory — especially the laughter as Kavanaugh and Judge allegedly held her onto the bed, trapped.
"Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense." Ford said.
Kavanaugh has denied the allegations, and in his prepared opening statement released Wednesday, reiterated those denials "categorically and unequivocally."
"I am not questioning that Dr. Ford may have been sexually assaulted by some person in some place at some time. But I have never done that to her or to anyone," his written testimony said.
Republicans, including President Trump, have called the claims part of a "smear" campaign against Kavanaugh's nomination.
Thursday's hearing on Capitol Hill drew widespread, passionate interest. Both actress Alyssa Milano — who has been an advocate for sexual assault survivors after speaking up about her own assault — and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are in the hearing room as guests of Democrats on the Judiciary Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
There are protesters and demonstrators next door in the Hart Senate Office Building — mostly women with some men, the majority of whom are opposing Kavanaugh's nomination.
The committee could vote on the Kavanaugh nomination as early as Friday morning as Republican leaders appear eager to move ahead on the nomination and get it to the Senate floor quickly. Democrats have continued calling for delays to the hearing and the committee vote until the FBI investigates allegations against Kavanaugh.
NPR's Scott Detrow and Art Silverman contributed to this report.