By Tessa Berenson
September 21, 2018

The White House distanced itself from a prominent conservative lawyer’s controversial theory about the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, telling TIME that the White House team did not know about it before it was tweeted last night.

“White House had no knowledge of it,” a White House official told TIME Friday morning.

By the time of the White House’s response to TIME, Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, had already deleted his tweets from the previous evening which put forward a theory that a different Georgetown Prep student had assaulted Christine Blasey Ford and apologized for them, saying it was “an appalling and inexcusable mistake” to post them.

When asked if the White House agrees with Whelan’s apology, the official said that because the White House had no prior knowledge of the theory, “We’re not going to characterize it.”

On Thursday evening, Whelan posted a string of tweets positing that a high school classmate of Kavanaugh’s may have assaulted Christine Ford and, because the two look very similar, Ford may have accused Kavanaugh of the assault by mistake. Whelan named the other man, posted photos of him from high school and adulthood alongside pictures of Kavanaugh and posted floor plans of the classmate’s childhood house to try to prove that may have been the house hosting the party the night of Ford’s alleged assault.

Responding to Whelan’s assertion, Ford told the Washington Post, “There is zero chance that I would confuse them.”

Other groups involved in Kavanaugh’s confirmation effort have also distanced themselves from Whelan’s tweets.

Taylor Foy, communications director for Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley on the committee, told TIME that “we didn’t have any prior knowledge of these tweets.”

Matt Whitlock, deputy chief of staff and communications director for Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, tweeted Thursday that he “had no idea what Ed was planning,” and deleted a previous tweet that had promoted Whelan’s account.

Hatch, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, had earlier said Ford may be “mixed up” in her recollection of the incident.

David Ludwig, a lawyer who specializes in defamation, said that Whelan’s tweetstorm “absolutely” met the standard for a libel case involving a private citizen like the former Georgetown Prep student named.

“Even before the apology and before the tweets were deleted, I think Whelan began to realize his potential liability when he tweeted, ‘To be clear, I have no idea what, if anything did or did not happen,'” he told TIME.

But he said that a lawsuit could also end up with testimony being taken about “what did or did not happen in that bedroom,” since truth is a defense against libel claims — something he did not think either the student or Kavanaugh would want to see.

Ford accused is currently in negotiations with the Judiciary Committee about whether to testify about the incident next week.

Even as they backed away from Whelan’s tactics, Republicans still projected confidence about Kavanaugh heading into a potential hearing. “In the very near future Judge Kavanaugh will be on the United States Supreme Court,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told conservative activists attending the Value Voters Summit in Washington on Friday.

Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.berenson@timeinc.com.

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