Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set a crucial threshold vote for Friday on Brett Kavanaugh's tottering Supreme Court nomination, moving his polarized chamber toward a potential confirmation roll call over the weekend that would determine which party wins an election-season battle royale that has consumed the nation.
McConnell, R-Ky., touched off the process late Wednesday and announced that sometime during the evening, the FBI would deliver to an anxious Senate the potentially fateful document on claims that Kavanaugh sexually abused women. With Republicans clinging to a razor-thin 51-49 majority and five senators -- including three Republicans -- still vacillating, the conservative jurist's prospects of Senate confirmation remained murky and highly dependent on the file's contents, which are supposed to be kept secret.
The report was arriving at a Capitol palpably tense over the political stakes of the nomination fight and from aggressive anti-Kavanaugh protesters who have rattled and reportedly harassed senators.
Adding to the uncertainty, the three undecided GOP senators who could decide Kavanaugh's fate rebuked President Donald Trump for mocking one accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, by mimicking her responses to questions at last week's dramatic Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told reporters that Trump's Tuesday night lampooning of Ford at a Mississippi campaign rally was "just plain wrong." Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, called it "wholly inappropriate and in my view unacceptable."
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said on NBC's "Today" show that the remarks were "kind of appalling." However, he said the president’s comments would not affect his vote.
Those GOP senators, along with Democrats Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota, and Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, have yet to declare how they will vote on Kavanaugh. Other Republicans conceded that Trump's insults could be damaging.
Trump ally Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said at an event hosted by The Atlantic magazine: "I would tell him, knock it off. You're not helping."
“Don't like what the president said last night,” Graham said. “I'm the first person to say I want to hear from Dr. Ford. I thought she was handled respectfully. I thought Kavanaugh was treated like c***.”
Trump drew laughs from supporters at a rally Tuesday night in Mississippi with his rendition of how Ford answered questions at last week's hearing. "I had one beer -- that's the only thing I remember," he stated inaccurately.
“How did you get home? I don't remember. How did you get there? I don't remember. Where is the place? I don't remember. How many years ago was that? I don't know,” Trump said.
News4Jax political analyst Rick Mullaney, director of the Public Policy Institute at Jacksonville University, said he believes the comments were risky, considering the vote ahead in the Senate.
“They have been highly criticized, particularly by three Republican senators who hang in the balance on this vote. So it was a very risky kind of comment for the president,” Mullaney said. “It may have played well to the audience in Mississippi at that rally. It may not play so well to the ultimate audience, which is the U.S. senators that are going to be voting on a confirmation.”
At a briefing Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump’s comments, saying Ford hasn’t been treated the same as Kavanaugh.
“Every single word, second by second of his testimony has been picked apart. Yet if anybody says anything about the accusations against him, it's totally off-limits and outrageous,” Sanders said. “This entire process has been a disgrace.”
Mullaney said the president has been somewhat inconsistent over the last week in his support for Kavanaugh.
“Whether you're going to label it mocking, which some do, or whether you're going to label it pointing out inconsistencies, there's no doubt that he was being highly critical of Professor Ford,” Mullaney said. “That is departure from his earlier comments in which he was very measured, stating that she was credible, that she was compelling, that she was sincere.”
Lawmakers were making plans to begin reading the FBI report early Thursday, with senators and a small number of top aides permitted to view it in a secure room in the Capitol complex. Republicans have said they are working under an agreement governing background checks dating from the Obama administration, under which investigations are confidential and closely held.
Washington has been awaiting completion of the investigation since last week, when Flake, Collins and Murkowski pressured a reluctant Trump and GOP leaders to order the FBI to renew its background check of the 53-year-old Kavanaugh.