Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who has come under sharp scrutiny for her handling of the sexual assault accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, said Monday that she had privately held on to a letter detailing the allegations because the accuser had asked her to keep them confidential.
But it was a news report last week that ultimately forced her hand, even as she struggled to explain the chain of events in brief interviews on Monday.
"She had asked to remain confidential," Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on her way to Senate votes.
Feinstein waited until late last week to provide the letter to the FBI -- only after a news report surfaced detailing the existence of the letter. Feinstein, aides said, wanted to protect the identity of the accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. An attorney for Ford said she did not want to subject herself to the "very brutal" confirmation process -- but agreed to do so and reveal herself publicly to The Washington Post after the report surfaced.
That initial report, in the Intercept, caught committee Democrats by surprise, who had been kept in the dark about the letter Feinstein received July 30, according to several Democratic sources. In what sources describe as a tense meeting last Wednesday night after the report was published, Democrats on the committee were given a copy of the letter and they urged Feinstein to take the matter to the FBI. An unredacted copy of the confidential letter was then provided to the FBI.
A Feinstein spokesman told CNN the letter was provided to the FBI after leaks to the media about the matter had reached a "fever pitch," and the spokesman denied that the leaks came from the senator's office. Feinstein aides would not say whether she had conferred with Ford or her attorney before sending the letter to the FBI, and neither would Feinstein, who said Monday that she could not recall when the letter had been sent to the authorities and "would have to check the records."
She also said she could not recall whether she had contact with the accuser after receiving her letter.
Ford, a university professor, alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her during a party while the two were in high school in the 1980s, a charge the federal judge has furiously denied. Ford initially broached the topic with her congresswoman, Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, who said Monday on CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront" that the two met for an hour and a half in July. During that meeting, Ford asked for complete confidentiality.
Eshoo said Ford later gave her a copy of the letter, which was hand-delivered to Feinstein's office on July 30.
President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other top Republicans have sharply criticized Feinstein's handling of the letter and refusal to ask Kavanaugh about the controversy during public and private sessions over the last several weeks. They say she waited strategically until the eleventh hour rather than doing so earlier in the vetting process.
Ford's attorney Debra Katz said Monday on CNN's "New Day" that she and Feinstein's office "were in touch" since they sent the July letter.
"She spoke to the senator very soon after the letter was sent, which was July 30. At that point, Dr. Blasey retained counsel and then communication went between staff and Dr. Blasey's counsel," Katz said.
Katz said her client "was not wanting to inject herself into this. Because who would want to incur this kind of really highly politicized attack game that she now finds herself in? She was fine with that decision, but that decision was taken away from her after the hearings when her allegations were essentially leaked."
Republicans, however, pushed back sharply, questioning Feinstein's decision not to raise the matter confidentially as the nomination was being considered.
"One thing I will say is that, as I understand it, Judge Kavanaugh spent quite a bit of time with Sen. Feinstein, and it wasn't even brought up at that meeting," Trump said Monday. "And she had this information. So you would have thought, certainly, that she would have brought it up at the meeting, not wait until everything is finished and then have to start a process all over again."
Senate Democrats, publicly, defended her handling of a very delicate situation.
"That's a tough spot to be in," said Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama. "That's a tough spot to be in."
Privately, some Democrats believed that holding on to the letter gave Republicans fodder to accuse the Democrats of playing dirty tricks.
Now, the decision by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa to hold a public hearing about the accusations next Monday will almost certainly determine whether Kavanaugh gets his seat on the court, something that would shift the court further to the right.
"If you believe the charges are true, then you vote no," said Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican .