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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump accused Democrats on Tuesday of using a “con game” to scuttle Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, forcefully dismissing allegations against the judge as Republicans began preparations for a pivotal hearing Thursday with Christine Blasey Ford, a woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

Kavanaugh’s march toward Senate confirmation has been rocked by allegations of decades-old sexual improprieties from two women. Preparing for the hearing with Ford, Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley of Iowa said Republicans had hired an “investigating counsel” to handle questioning. He declined to provide the attorney’s name.

“We’re going to ask some questions on our side, by this person, for the same amount of time as the Democrats have collectively on the other side. And we’re doing it strictly to depoliticize the whole operation, to offer Dr. Ford the professional environment she asked for,” Grassley said.

Republicans decided to hire a female attorney because of the risk that the panel’s 11 Republican men — there are no GOP women on the committee — might say something insensitive to Ford. A major slip-up could endanger Kavanaugh’s confirmation and create political pain for the GOP in the midterm elections.

The accusation: Ford alleges that Kavanaugh tried removing her clothes during a party when they were in high school. She says he covered her mouth to prevent her screams after he pinned her on a bed. Kavanaugh denies the accusation.

Ahead of the hearing with Ford, Republicans have been rallying to Kavanaugh’s defense, accusing Democrats of waging a “smear campaign” against the appellate judge and stressing that there should be a presumption of innocence. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell predicted Kavanaugh will be confirmed, saying, “I’m confident we’re going to win.”

In a show of confidence, Republicans said they were discussing keeping the Senate in session this weekend so that they can begin the process of confirming Kavanaugh right away.

“I think we’ll all be here all weekend,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican.

Do-or-die moment: Yet GOP senators acknowledge the hearing Thursday with Kavanaugh and Ford is a do-or-die moment. A split-second facial expression, a tear or a choice of words by either witness could prove decisive. Several Republican senators have said they won’t decide how to vote on Kavanaugh until after the hearing.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the undecided Republicans, said she will be “glued to the television” during the hearing.

But one frequent Trump critic, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was clearly leaning toward supporting Kavanaugh.

“I go into the hearings with very positive feelings about him, and I hope Thursday goes well,” Corker told reporters.

At the United Nations, Trump, who had previously questioned Ford’s credibility, turned his attention to Kavanaugh’s second accuser, Deborah Ramirez.

Ramirez told The New Yorker magazine that at a party both attended as Yale freshmen in the 1980s, a drunken Kavanaugh placed his penis in front of her and caused her to involuntarily touch it. Kavanaugh denies her allegation.

Ramirez told the magazine she was inebriated as well and admitted to holes in her memory, which Trump seized on in his remarks.

“She said well it might not be him, and there were gaps, and she was totally inebriated and all messed up,” Trump told reporters. “She doesn’t know it was him but it might have been him and ‘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 called Kavanaugh “just a wonderful human being” and suggested that Democrats were skeptical of Ramirez, saying, “They don’t believe it themselves.” He said rejecting Kavanaugh would be “a horrible insult” and “a very dangerous game” for the U.S.

Democrats have largely avoided talking extensively about Ramirez’s accusations, instead focusing on Ford and their push for the GOP to conduct an FBI investigation.

“Women and their experiences are not just things to be plowed through,” Sen. Patty Murry, a Democrat from Washington, said at a press conference.

“Women are paying attention. Republicans need to get this right.”

In what amounted to a dry run for his grilling by the Judiciary Committee, Kavanaugh took the extraordinary step of conducting an interview with Fox News Channel that aired Monday night. Denying the allegations against him, he vowed that he won’t be “pushed out” of the confirmation process.

“What I know is I’ve never sexually assaulted anyone,” Kavanaugh said in the interview, which was conducted alongside his wife, Ashley.

After the interview aired, the sense in the West Wing was relief that Kavanaugh was able to present an image to counter the allegations. Yet there remained concern among aides, and Trump himself, as to how Kavanaugh, who appeared shaken at times during the interview, would hold up facing far fiercer questioning from Senate Democrats on Thursday, according to a White House official not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.

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Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Juliet Linderman, Catherine Lucey, Jonathan Lemire, Kevin Freking, Padmananda Rama and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

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