Senate Democrats Investigate a New Allegation of Sexual Misconduct, from Brett Kavanaugh’s College Years
By Ronan Farrow And Jane Mayer
September 23, 2018
As Senate Republicans press for a swift vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Senate Democrats are investigating a new allegation of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh. The claim dates to the 1983-84 academic school year, when Kavanaugh was a freshman at Yale University. The offices of at least four Democratic senators have received information about the allegation, and at least two have begun investigating it. Senior Republican staffers also learned of the allegation last week and, in conversations with The New Yorker, expressed concern about its potential impact on Kavanaugh’s nomination. Soon after, Senate Republicans issued renewed calls to accelerate the timing of a committee vote. The Democratic Senate offices reviewing the allegations believe that they merit further investigation. “This is another serious, credible, and disturbing allegation against Brett Kavanaugh. It should be fully investigated,” Senator Mazie Hirono, of Hawaii, said. An aide in one of the other Senate offices added, “These allegations seem credible, and we’re taking them very seriously. If established, they’re clearly disqualifying.”
The woman at the center of the story, Deborah Ramirez, who is fifty-three, attended Yale with Kavanaugh, where she studied sociology and psychology. Later, she spent years working for an organization that supports victims of domestic violence. The New Yorker contacted Ramirez after learning of her possible involvement in an incident involving Kavanaugh. The allegation was conveyed to Democratic senators by a civil-rights lawyer. For Ramirez, the sudden attention has been unwelcome, and prompted difficult choices. She was at first hesitant to speak publicly, partly because her memories contained gaps because she had been drinking at the time of the alleged incident. In her initial conversations with The New Yorker, she was reluctant to characterize Kavanaugh’s role in the alleged incident with certainty. After six days of carefully assessing her memories and consulting with her attorney, Ramirez said that she felt confident enough of her recollections to say that she remembers Kavanaugh had exposed himself at a drunken dormitory party, thrust his penis in her face, and caused her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away. Ramirez is now calling for the F.B.I. to investigate Kavanaugh’s role in the incident. “I would think an F.B.I. investigation would be warranted,” she said.
In a statement, Kavanaugh wrote, “This alleged event from 35 years ago did not happen. The people who knew me then know that this did not happen, and have said so. This is a smear, plain and simple. I look forward to testifying on Thursday about the truth, and defending my good name—and the reputation for character and integrity I have spent a lifetime building—against these last-minute allegations.”
The White House spokesperson Kerri Kupec said the Administration stood by Kavanaugh. “This 35-year-old, uncorroborated claim is the latest in a coordinated smear campaign by the Democrats designed to tear down a good man. This claim is denied by all who were said to be present and is wholly inconsistent with what many women and men who knew Judge Kavanaugh at the time in college say. The White House stands firmly behind Judge Kavanaugh.”
Ramirez said that, when both she and Kavanaugh were freshmen at Yale, she was invited by a friend on the women’s soccer team to a dorm-room party. She recalled that the party took place in a suite at Lawrance Hall, in the part of Yale known as Old Campus, and that a small group of students decided to play a drinking game together. “We were sitting in a circle,” she said. “People would pick who drank.” Ramirez was chosen repeatedly, she said, and quickly became inebriated. At one point, she said, a male student pointed a gag plastic penis in her direction. Later, she said, she was on the floor, foggy and slurring her words, as that male student and another stood nearby. (Ramirez identified the two male onlookers, but, at her request, The New Yorker is not naming them.)
A third male student then exposed himself to her. “I remember a penis being in front of my face,” she said. “I knew that’s not what I wanted, even in that state of mind.” She recalled remarking, “That’s not a real penis,” and the other students laughing at her confusion and taunting her, one encouraging her to “kiss it.” She said that she pushed the person away, touching it in the process. Ramirez, who was raised a devout Catholic, in Connecticut, said that she was shaken. “I wasn’t going to touch a penis until I was married,” she said. “I was embarrassed and ashamed and humiliated.” She remembers Kavanaugh standing to her right and laughing, pulling up his pants. “Brett was laughing,” she said. “I can still see his face, and his hips coming forward, like when you pull up your pants.” She recalled another male student shouting about the incident. “Somebody yelled down the hall, ‘Brett Kavanaugh just put his penis in Debbie’s face,’ ” she said. “It was his full name. I don’t think it was just ‘Brett.’ And I remember hearing and being mortified that this was out there.”
Ramirez acknowledged that there are significant gaps in her memories of the evening, and that, if she ever presents her story to the F.B.I. or members of the Senate, she will inevitably be pressed on her motivation for coming forward after so many years, and questioned about her memory, given her drinking at the party.
And yet, after several days of considering the matter carefully, she said, “I’m confident about the pants coming up, and I’m confident about Brett being there.” Ramirez said that what has stayed with her most forcefully is the memory of laughter at her expense from Kavanaugh and the other students. “It was kind of a joke,” she recalled. “And now it’s clear to me it wasn’t a joke.”
By his freshman year, Kavanaugh was eighteen, and legally an adult. During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kavanaugh swore under oath that as a legal adult he had never “committed any verbal or physical harassment or assault of a sexual nature.”
The New Yorker has not confirmed with other eyewitnesses that Kavanaugh was present at the party. The magazine contacted several dozen classmates of Ramirez and Kavanaugh regarding the incident. Many did not respond to interview requests; others declined to comment, or said they did not attend or remember the party. A classmate of Ramirez’s, who declined to be identified because of the partisan battle over Kavanaugh’s nomination, said that another student told him about the incident either on the night of the party or in the next day or two. The classmate said that he is “one-hundred-per-cent sure” that he was told at the time that Kavanaugh was the student who exposed himself to Ramirez. He independently recalled many of the same details offered by Ramirez, including that a male student had encouraged Kavanaugh as he exposed himself. The classmate, like Ramirez, recalled that the party took place in a common room on the first floor in Entryway B of Lawrance Hall, during their freshman year. “I’ve known this all along,” he said. “It’s been on my mind all these years when his name came up. It was a big deal.” The story stayed with him, he said, because it was disturbing and seemed outside the bounds of typically acceptable behavior, even during heavy drinking at parties on campus. The classmate said that he had been shocked, but not necessarily surprised, because the social group to which Kavanaugh belonged often drank to excess. He recalled Kavanaugh as “relatively shy” until he drank, at which point he said that Kavanaugh could become “aggressive and even belligerent.”
Another classmate, Richard Oh, an emergency-room doctor in California, recalled overhearing, soon after the party, a female student tearfully recounting to another student an incident at a party involving a gag with a fake penis, followed by a male student exposing himself. Oh is not certain of the identity of the female student. Ramirez told her mother and sister about an upsetting incident at the time, but did not describe the details to either due to her embarrassment.
Mark Krasberg, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico who was also a member of Kavanaugh and Ramirez’s class at Yale, said Kavanaugh’s college behavior had become a topic of discussion among former Yale students soon after Kavanaugh’s nomination. In one e-mail that Krasberg received in September, the classmate who recalled hearing about the incident with Ramirez alluded to the allegation and wrote that it “would qualify as a sexual assault,” he speculated, “if it’s true.”
One of the male classmates who Ramirez said egged on Kavanaugh denied any memory of the party. “I don’t think Brett would flash himself to Debbie, or anyone, for that matter,” he said. Asked why he thought Ramirez was making the allegation, he responded, “I have no idea.” The other male classmate who Ramirez said was involved in the incident commented, “I have zero recollection.”
In a statement, two of those male classmates who Ramirez alleged were involved in the incident, the wife of a third male student she said was involved, and one other classmate, Dan Murphy, disputed Ramirez’s account of events: “We were the people closest to Brett Kavanaugh during his first year at Yale. He was a roommate to some of us, and we spent a great deal of time with him, including in the dorm where this incident allegedly took place. Some of us were also friends with Debbie Ramirez during and after her time at Yale. We can say with confidence that if the incident Debbie alleges ever occurred, we would have seen or heard about it—and we did not. The behavior she describes would be completely out of character for Brett. In addition, some of us knew Debbie long after Yale, and she never described this incident until Brett’s Supreme Court nomination was pending. Editors from the New Yorker contacted some of us because we are the people who would know the truth, and we told them that we never saw or heard about this.”
(Two students who initially signed the statement, Louisa Garry and Dino Ewing, approached The New Yorker after the publication of this article and asked that their names be removed from it. “I never saw or heard anything like this,” Garry said. “But I cannot dispute Ramirez’s allegations, as I was not present.” Ewing also said he had no direct knowledge of the allegation and considered it out of character for Kavanaugh, but emphasized, “I also was not present and therefore am not in a position to directly dispute Ramirez’s account.”)
The former friend who was married to the male classmate alleged to be involved, and who signed the statement, said of Ramirez, “This is a woman I was best friends with. We shared intimate details of our lives. And I was never told this story by her, or by anyone else. It never came up. I didn’t see it; I never heard of it happening.” She said she hadn’t spoken with Ramirez for about ten years, but that the two women had been close all through college, and Kavanaugh had remained part of what she called their “larger social circle.” In an initial conversation with The New Yorker, she suggested that Ramirez may have been politically motivated. Later, she said that she did not know if this was the case.
Ramirez is a registered Democrat, but said that her decision to speak out was not politically motivated and, regarding her views, that she “works toward human rights, social justice, and social change.” Ramirez said that she felt “disappointed and betrayed” by the statements from classmates questioning her allegation, “because I clearly remember people in the room whose names are on this letter.”
Several other classmates said that they believed Ramirez to be credible and honest, and vouched for her integrity. James Roche was roommates with Kavanaugh at the time of the alleged incident and is now the C.E.O. of a software company in San Francisco. “Debbie and I became close friends shortly after we both arrived at Yale,” he said. “She stood out as being exceptionally honest and gentle. I cannot imagine her making this up.” He said that he never witnessed Kavanaugh engage in any sexual misconduct, but did recall him being “frequently, incoherently drunk.” He described Ramirez as a vulnerable outsider. “Is it believable that she was alone with a wolfy group of guys who thought it was funny to sexually torment a girl like Debbie? Yeah, definitely. Is it believable that Kavanaugh was one of them? Yes.” Another acquaintance from college, Jennifer Klaus, similarly said that she considered the allegation plausible, adding, “Debbie’s always been a very truthful, kind—almost to the point of being selfless—individual.” A third classmate, who Ramirez thought had attended the party, said that she was not present at the incident. The former student, who asked not to be named, said that she also found Ramirez credible.
Former students described an atmosphere at Yale at the time in which alcohol-fuelled parties often led to behavior similar to that described by Ramirez. “I believe it could have happened,” another classmate who knew both Kavanaugh and Ramirez said. Though she was not aware of Kavanaugh being involved in any specific misconduct, she recalled that heavy drinking was routine and that Ramirez was sometimes victimized and taunted by male students in his social circle. “They were always, like, ‘Debbie’s here!,’ and then they’d get into their ‘Lord of the Flies’ thing,” she said. While at Yale, Kavanaugh became a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, or “DKE,” which several students said was known for its wild and, in the view of some critics, misogynistic parties. Kavanaugh was also a member of an all-male secret society, Truth and Courage, which was popularly known by the nickname “Tit and Clit.”
Ramirez said that she continued to socialize with one of the male classmates who had egged Kavanaugh on during the party during college; she even invited the classmate to her house for Thanksgiving one year, after he told her that he had nowhere to go. She also attended his wedding, years later, as a guest of his wife, and said that she posed for photographs with Kavanaugh, smiling.
Ramirez said that she remained silent about the matter and did not fully confront her memories about it for years because she blamed herself for drinking too much. “It was a story that was known, but it was a story I was embarrassed about,” she said. More recently, she has begun to reassess what happened. “Even if I did drink too much, any person observing it, would they want their daughter, their granddaughter, with a penis in their face, while they’re drinking that much?” she said. “I can say that at fifty-three, but when I was nineteen or twenty I was vulnerable. I didn’t know better.” Reflecting on the incident now, she said she considers Kavanaugh’s male classmates culpable. “They’re accountable for not stopping this,” she said. However, “What Brett did is worse.” She added, “What does it mean, that this person has a role in defining women’s rights in our future?”
As Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings became a national story, the discussions among Ramirez and Kavanaugh’s classmates took on heightened urgency, eventually spreading to news organizations and to the Senate. Senate aides from Ramirez’s home state of Colorado alerted a lawyer, Stanley Garnett, a former Democratic district attorney in Boulder, who currently represents her. Ramirez ultimately decided to begin telling her story publicly, before others did so for her. “I didn’t want any of this,” she said. “But now I have to speak.”
Ramirez said that she hoped her story would support that of Christine Blasey Ford, the California professor who has raised an allegation of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh that bears several similarities to Ramirez’s claim. Like Ramirez, Ford said that Kavanaugh was involved in sexual misconduct at a party while drunk and egged on by a male friend. In July, she sent a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein alleging that, at a party in the summer of 1982, when she was fifteen and Kavanaugh was seventeen and in high school, Kavanaugh pushed her into a bedroom, locked the door, pinned her to a bed, and covered her mouth to stop her screams as he attempted to pull off her clothes. Details of Ford’s allegation were initially made public by The New Yorker, which did not name her at the time. Subsequently, she disclosed her name in an interview with the Washington Post. In her letter, Ford said that during the incident she feared that Kavanaugh might inadvertently kill her. She alleged that a male friend and Georgetown Prep classmate of Kavanaugh’s, Mark Judge, was present in the room, alternately urging Kavanaugh to “go for it” and to “stop.” Kavanaugh has denied the allegation.
Ford’s allegation has made Judge a potentially pivotal witness for Kavanaugh. Judge told The New Yorker that he had “no recollection” of such an incident. Judge, who is a conservative writer, later gave an interview to The Weekly Standard in which he called Ford’s allegation “just absolutely nuts,” adding, “I never saw Brett act that way.” Asked by the interviewer whether he could remember any “sort of rough-housing with a female student back in high school” that might have been “interpreted differently by parties involved,” Judge told the publication, “I can’t. I can recall a lot of rough-housing with guys.” He added, “I don’t remember any of that stuff going on with girls.”
After seeing Judge’s denial, Elizabeth Rasor, who met Judge at Catholic University and was in a relationship with him for about three years, said that she felt morally obligated to challenge his account that “ ‘no horseplay’ took place at Georgetown Prep with women.” Rasor stressed that “under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t reveal information that was told in confidence,” but, she said, “I can’t stand by and watch him lie.” In an interview with The New Yorker, she said, “Mark told me a very different story.” Rasor recalled that Judge had told her ashamedly of an incident that involved him and other boys taking turns having sex with a drunk woman. Rasor said that Judge seemed to regard it as fully consensual. She said that Judge did not name others involved in the incident, and she has no knowledge that Kavanaugh participated. But Rasor was disturbed by the story and noted that it undercut Judge’s protestations about the sexual innocence of Georgetown Prep. (Barbara Van Gelder, an attorney for Judge, said that he “categorically denies” the account related by Rasor. Van Gelder said that Judge had no further comment.)
Another woman who attended high school in the nineteen-eighties in Montgomery County, Maryland, where Georgetown Prep is located, also refuted Judge’s account of the social scene at the time, sending a letter to Ford’s lawyers saying that she had witnessed boys at parties that included Georgetown Prep students engaging in sexual misconduct. In an interview, the woman, who asked to have her name withheld for fear of political retribution, recalled that male students “would get a female student blind drunk” on what they called “jungle juice”—grain alcohol mixed with Hawaiian Punch—then try to take advantage of her. “It was disgusting,” she said. “They treated women like meat.”
Kavanaugh’s attitude toward women has come to play a central role in his confirmation process. His backers have offered portrayals of his strong support for girls and women. When Kavanaugh accepted Trump’s nomination to the Court at a White House event in July, he and Trump both stressed that he had numerous female law clerks, and that he coached his young daughters’ school basketball teams. During his Senate confirmation hearings, Kavanaugh at one point ushered into the Senate hearing room a large group of school girls whose basketball games he had coached, showcasing his warm and supportive relationships with women. Earlier this month, on the same day The New Yorker reported details of Ford’s allegation, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee released a letter from sixty-five women defending the nominee. On Monday, CNN reported that the White House has been contacting many of those women again, hoping to present their perspective to the media, perhaps as part of a group news conference.
The very different portrayals of Kavanaugh and his social scene offered by Ford, and now Ramirez, come at a crucial point in the confirmation process. On Friday, the Republican Senator Charles Grassley, of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a public ultimatum to Ford, announcing that he would schedule the committee’s vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation for Monday morning if she did not respond to an invitation to testify by a deadline, set first for Friday night and then for Saturday afternoon. Lawyers for Ford had pushed back, demanding an outside investigation of Ford’s allegation by the F.B.I. before she offered testimony, and said that she needed additional time to prepare. The White House and F.B.I. have declined to pursue that F.B.I. investigation, though Grassley has stated that his office has conducted its own inquiries into the matter. On Sunday, Ford’s lawyer and the committee reached an agreement for her to testify on Thursday.
In a statement, Kavanaugh’s attorneys Beth Wilkinson and Alexandra Walsh wrote, “Judge Kavanaugh fully and honestly answered the Judiciary Committee’s questions over multiple days only to have unsubstantiated allegations come out when a vote on his confirmation was imminent. What matters in situations like these are facts and evidence.” Like Kavanaugh, they said that, on Thursday, “testimony and evidence will confirm what Judge Kavanaugh has made clear all along—that he did not commit the sexual assault Dr. Blasey Ford describes.”
The issue has proved to be politically delicate for the White House. Last week, Vanity Fair reported that White House officials were concerned about additional allegations against Kavanaugh emerging, and cited a source who claimed that Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and adviser, had urged him to withdraw Kavanaugh’s nomination. Trump has defended Kavanaugh in the wake of Ford’s allegations. In a series of tweets on Friday, he sought to undermine her account of events, writing, “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.” He described Kavanaugh as “a fine man,” who he wrote was “under assault by radical left wing politicians.”
Ramirez said that witnessing the attempts to discredit Ford had made her frightened to share her own story, which she knew would be attacked due to the gaps in her memory and her level of inebriation at the time. “I’m afraid how this will all come back on me,” she said. Her attorney, Garnett, said that he and Ramirez had not yet decided when and how she would convey the details of her allegation to the Senate Judiciary Committee and whether new counsel would represent her in Washington. “We’re carefully evaluating what the appropriate next steps would be,” he said. They both said that an F.B.I. investigation of the matter was merited. “I do believe an F.B.I. investigation of this kind of character-related information would be appropriate, and would be an effective way to relay the information to the committee,” Garnett said. Of Ramirez, he added, “She’s as careful and credible a witness as I’ve encountered in thirty-six years of practicing law.” Ramirez said that she hoped an investigation could be carried out before the committee voted on Kavanaugh’s nomination. “At least look at it,” she said of her claim. “At least check it out.”