A conservative legal commentator on Friday denied communicating with the White House or Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh about his theory that the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault was mistaking him for someone else.
"I have not communicated at all with [White House counsel] Donald McGahn or anyone at the White House, or Judge Kavanaugh, about the topic of the Twitter thread," Ed Whelan said in a brief interview with The Washington Post.
Whelan, president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, declined to discuss his since-deleted tweets speculating on who might have assaulted Christine Blasey Ford in the early 1980s or whether he had spoken with other top Republicans about the matter.
Ford's allegation that Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, groped her and tried to pull off her clothes at a party in Montgomery County, Maryland, while they were teenagers has upended his Supreme Court confirmation process and threatened a nomination that Republicans believed was headed for a straightforward conclusion this month.
Kavanaugh, a judge on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, has strongly denied the allegations, saying in a statement that he has "never done anything like what the accuser describes."
Whelan's claims on Twitter on Thursday evening that Ford might have been assaulted by someone else raised immediate questions about whether he had spoken to or coordinated with Republican leaders about his theory.
Republicans on Capitol Hill and White House officials sought to distance themselves from Whelan's claims, saying they were not aware that he was going to suggest Ford could have been attacked by a former classmate of Kavanaugh's.
Whelan has been involved in helping to advise Kavanaugh's confirmation effort and is close friends with Kavanaugh and Leonard Leo, the head of the Federalist Society, who has been helping to spearhead the nomination.
On Sunday, Ford noticed that - even before her name became public - Whelan appeared to be seeking information about her.
That morning, Ford alerted an associate via email that Whelan had looked at her LinkedIn page, according to the email, which was reviewed by The Post. LinkedIn allows some subscribers to see who views their pages. Ford sent the email about 90 minutes after The Post shared her name with a White House spokesman and hours before her identity was revealed in a story posted on its website.
A White House spokesman said Friday that neither Kavanaugh nor anyone in the White House gave Ford's name to Whelan before it was disclosed by The Post.
After The Post contacted the White House for comment Sunday morning, deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah called a number of Trump allies to warn them about the upcoming story, according to a person familiar with the calls, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. He disclosed Ford's identity to a number of these people but did not talk to Whelan, the person said. Other White House officials, including McGahn, also made calls according to a second person, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Whelan did not respond to a request for comment on how he first learned of Ford's identity.
Kavanaugh and his allies have privately discussed mounting a defense that would not question whether an incident involving Ford happened, but instead would raise doubts that the attacker was Kavanaugh, The Post reported Thursday.
In the wake of Ford's allegation, Kavanaugh told White House officials and Republicans on Capitol Hill that it was potentially a case of mistaken identity, according to people who heard his comments or were familiar with the discussions. Kavanaugh did not respond to requests for comment.
Nevertheless, White House officials and Kavanaugh were caught off guard by the claims Whelan made on Twitter, according to a senior official. Top aides including McGahn, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway and deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah were frustrated by his tweets, which they believe did not help Kavanaugh, officials said.
Whelan, a former clerk to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, is a well-connected stalwart of the conservative legal establishment. He and Kavanaugh served at the same time in the George W. Bush administration, when Kavanaugh worked in the White House Counsel's Office and Whelan was the principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, according to the biography posted on the website of the center where Whelan works.
Whelan also worked for the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1992 to 1995 as a senior staffer to Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah, then the panel's top Republican, according to congressional testimony he gave in 2015.
Shortly after Ford went public with her allegations in an interview with The Post, conservatives began floating the idea that she was misremembering the night of the alleged attack - or mistaking the identity of her attacker.
"Somebody's mixed up," Hatch told CNN on Monday after speaking privately with Kavanaugh.
"Mistaken identity is also possible," the Wall Street Journal's editorial board wrote Tuesday.
Whelan hinted throughout the week on Twitter that he was gathering information that would vindicate Kavanaugh and show Ford "got the wrong guy."
The tweets circulated and came to the attention of the White House and senior Republicans on Capitol Hill, according to people familiar with internal discussions.
On Thursday, Whelan posted detailed and unverified exhibits as he identified a possible location for the party where Ford said she was assaulted, including a map, floor plans and photos of a house in Chevy Chase and photos of a former Kavanaugh classmate at Georgetown Preparatory School. The theory was discussed on "Fox and Friends" and promoted by right-wing online media outlets such as Gateway Pundit.
Ford dismissed the notion that she had identified the wrong person, saying in a statement late Thursday that she knew both men and had "socialized with" the classmate and once visited him in the hospital.
"There is zero chance that I would confuse them," she said in a statement.
Whelan apologized Friday morning for naming the former classmate and suggesting he could have been responsible for the alleged assault.
"I made an appalling and inexcusable mistake of judgment in posting the tweet thread in a way that identified Kavanaugh's Georgetown Prep classmate. I take full responsibility for that mistake, and I deeply apologize for it," Whelan tweeted.
The former classmate, now a middle school teacher, did not respond to a note requesting comment left at his house.
Whelan's hints at an alternative explanation for Ford's account had piqued the interest of Kavanaugh allies and Senate Republican staffers.
Matt Whitlock, a spokesman for Hatch, was among those who called attention on Twitter to Whelan's promise of information that would refute the charges against the judge.
Once Whelan laid out his specific theory - including naming a possible other suspect - Whitlock deleted his tweet and distanced himself from the effort. He said in a statement Friday that he did not know what Whelan was planning.
"He didn't share details about what he had, how it would exonerate Kavanaugh, and certainly not how he would reveal it," Whitlock said in a statement, adding that Hatch, while longtime friends with Whelan, "had no idea what Ed was planning."
On Twitter and in columns for National Review Online, Whelan has been one of Kavanaugh's most active defenders, pushing back against those on the right who have suggested he is not sufficiently conservative.
Whelan is no stranger to controversy online, having apologized in 2009 for revealing the identity of pseudonymous blogger "Publius" and retracted a post in February 2017 arguing that "liberal judicial activism" contributed to the shooting death of a Whittier, Calif., police officer.
"I have tried to follow a practice of scrupulously correcting my errors and of not making points that I can't responsibly support. I wish that others would follow this same practice," he wrote in a post about the retraction.
The Washington Post's Robert Barnes, Josh Dawsey, Sharon Dunten, Seung Min Kim and Michael Kranish contributed to this report.