Donald Trump has grudgingly opened the door to “a little delay” in a Senate vote on Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh.
His move came as senior Republicans fought to prevent the accusation that Mr Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted a fellow high school student from morphing into a mortal blow to the nomination.
Mr Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, each indicated a willingness to give evidence to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the alleged incident.
But Republican leaders showed no interest in a public spectacle that would thrust the pair before TV cameras with each offering dramatic — and no doubt conflicting — versions of what happened in the early 1980s.
Mr Kavanaugh, 53, whose confirmation had seemed to be on a smooth trajectory, was seen arriving at the White House on Monday, but Mr Trump said he did not meet his nominee and declined to say whether he had offered to withdraw, dismissing the question as “ridiculous”.
Republican Judiciary Committee aides plan to talk to Mr Kavanaugh by telephone about Ms Ford’s allegations and hope for a phone interview with her on Tuesday, said a source.
But top Senate Democrats said their party’s staff would not participate. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s senior Democrat, cited the allegations’ “enormity and seriousness” and said the FBI should do the interviewing and let the committee decide whether to seek additional information.
Ms Ford, now a psychology professor at California’s Palo Alto University, told the Washington Post that an intoxicated Mr Kavanaugh corralled her into a bedroom at a Maryland party when she was around 15 and Kavanaugh was about 17, held her down on a bed, tried to undress her and held his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream.
She said she got away when a companion of Mr Kavanaugh jumped on him.
He said in a statement distributed by the White House on Monday that he wanted to “refute this false allegation, from 36 years ago, and defend my integrity”.
A public hearing, coming as the #MeToo movement has galvanised liberal and female voters and cost prominent men their jobs, would be a politically jarring prelude to November elections for control of Congress.
Mr Trump’s eldest son appeared to mock the sexual assault allegations, posting an image on Instagram with the caption “Judge Kavanaugh sexual assault letter found by Dems…”
The photo attached shows a crumpled-up piece of notebook paper with a scribbled message: “Hi Cindy will you be my girlfriend, Love Bret.”
Mr Trump Jr also “liked” a tweet from conservative actor James Woods which compared the accusation to a #MeToo “lynching”. Woods later deleted the tweet.
The Judiciary Committee’s Republican chairman Chuck Grassley said Ms Ford “deserves to be heard” but in “an appropriate, precedented and respectful manner”.