By Richard Cowan and Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump, fighting to shore up his nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court in a divided U.S. Senate, on Tuesday called sexual misconduct allegations against the judge "a con game being played by the Democrats."
Trump's comments to reporters at the United Nations represented an escalation of his rhetoric on behalf of the conservative federal appeals court judge whose nomination to a lifetime post on the high court has been imperiled by allegations dating to the 1980s brought by two women.
The president's remarks came a day after Kavanaugh sought to bolster his chances of confirmation in the Senate with a high-risk interview on Fox News in which he denied all the allegations against him.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reiterated that the chamber will hold a confirmation vote in the aftermath of a Judiciary Committee hearing set for Thursday in which Kavanaugh and a woman who has accused him of sexual assault will testify. Senator John Thune, a member of Republican leadership, told reporters the Senate debate on Kavanaugh could begin as soon as Friday or Saturday, with a confirmation vote possible next week.
Kavanaugh has denied the allegations by Christine Blasey Ford, a university professor who accused him of sexual assault in 1982 when both were high school students in Maryland, and Deborah Ramirez, who accused him of sexual misconduct during the 1983-84 academic year at Yale University.
Trump on Tuesday said Ford's allegation was 36 years old "and nobody ever heard about it." Of Ramirez's allegation, Trump said, "And now a new charge comes up. And she says, 'Well it might not be him.' And there were gaps. And she said she was totally inebriated, and she was all messed up, and she doesn't know it was him, but it might have been him."
"Oh, gee, let's not make him a Supreme Court judge because of that? This is a con game being played by the Democrats," Trump added.
Kavanaugh and his Republican allies have framed the allegations as part of a "smear campaign" by Democrats who have opposed his nomination from the beginning.
Republicans hold a slim 51-49 Senate majority, meaning Kavanaugh's confirmation prospects may hinge on the votes of a handful of moderate Republican senators who have not yet announced their intentions, These include Senators Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and Jeff Flake.
A comment by Murkowski to CNN on Tuesday could be an ominous sign for Kavanaugh. Republican leaders and Trump have rejected Democratic demands for the FBI to investigate the allegations. But Murkowski, asked about an FBI investigation, said, "It would sure clear up all the questions, wouldn't it?"
'A GOOD PERSON'
In an interview with Fox News aired on Monday night, Kavanaugh said he "never sexually assaulted anyone," has "always treated women with dignity and respect" and "did not have sexual intercourse or anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter." Regarding alcohol, he said he never drank so much that he could not remember what happened the night before.
"I think all of us have probably done things we look back on in high school and regret or cringe a bit, but that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about an allegation of sexual assault. I've never sexually assaulted anyone," Kavanaugh said in the interview, sitting alongside his wife.
"I'm a good person," Kavanaugh added.
Trump gave this assessment of Kavanaugh's Fox News interview: "He was so truthful."
The Kavanaugh confirmation fight comes just weeks before Nov. 6 congressional elections in which Democrats are trying to take control of Congress from Republicans, against a backdrop of the #MeToo movement fighting sexual harassment and assault.
Some Democratic senators running for re-election in states where Trump is popular have not yet announced their intentions.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called on McConnell to apologize to Ford "for labeling her allegations a 'smear job,'" adding, "I challenge you, Leader McConnell, if you are so convinced this is a smear campaign, you'll have no problem with an FBI investigation to prove your case."
Kavanaugh's confirmation would firm up conservative control of the Supreme Court and advance Trump's goal of moving the high court and the broader federal judiciary to the right.
Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University in California, said in an interview published in the Washington Post last week Kavanaugh attacked her and tried to remove her clothing while he was drunk at a party when he was 17 years old and she was 15.
Ramirez accused Kavanaugh in an article published in the New Yorker magazine on Sunday of exposing himself to her during a drunken dormitory party at Yale.
Asked whether Ramirez should also be allowed to testify, Trump said, "The second accuser has nothing."
"The American people know that sexual misconduct is gravely serious. They expect this to be treated seriously and addressed promptly," McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor.
"The American people also insist that vague, unsubstantiated and uncorroborated allegations of 30-plus-year-old misconduct where all the supposed witnesses either totally deny it or can't confirm it is nowhere near grounds to nullify someone's career or destroy their good name," McConnell added.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by David Alexander, Jeff Mason and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Will Dunham)