The FBI investigation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault generated new schisms among Republicans on Tuesday as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed for a vote on the nomination this week.
The White House decision to order a one-week FBI investigation, after several Republican senators threatened to withhold support for the embattled nominee, was intended to restore confidence in a confirmation process that has been scrambled by multiple allegations of Kavanaugh’s sexual misconduct and heavy drinking decades ago.
But the FBI inquiry has generated another round of confusion and acrimony, with disputes over what evidence will become public, how long the probe will last, and what topics it will cover. It comes in the wake of an explosive Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last Thursday that saw Kavanaugh vehemently deny Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that he attacked her when they were high school students.
Ford's lawyers, Michael Bromwich and Debra Katz, sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray on Tuesday saying they had received no response on her offer to cooperate with the investigation.
“It is inconceivable that the FBI could conduct a thorough investigation of Dr. Ford’s allegations without interviewing her, Judge Kavanaugh or the witnesses we have identified in our letters to you,” the lawyers wrote.
President Trump stoked what has become a searingly divisive debate on Tuesday night when, before a political rally of thousands in Mississippi, he went beyond defending Kavanaugh to mocking the accuser, Ford. Just days ago, he’d praised her as “a very credible witness.”
For an extended time, to his audience’s laughter and applause, Trump feigned the voices of Ford and a senator interrogating her. Mimicking Ford, he said, “I had one beer!” Playing the senator, he then asked how she got home, how she got to the house where she was allegedly attacked, where is it? To each question, Trump-as-Ford answered, “I don’t remember!” and finally “she” objects, “But I had 1 beer! That's the only thing I remember!”
In fact, Ford has testified in detail to what she alleges was Kavanaugh’s attempt to rape her and her fear that he would suffocate her before she was able to escape.
Two other women have publicly accused Kavanaugh, who sits on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, of sexual misconduct. He has denied their allegations as well.
In addition to Ford, Deborah Ramirez has said Kavanaugh exposed himself in her face while they were Yale classmates. Julie Swetnick signed an affidavit saying that when they were teenagers, Kavanaugh and his friends would try to get girls drunk at parties “so they could then be gang raped,” and that Kavanaugh was present when she was one of the victims.
FBI agents spoke with Ramirez on Sunday, according to her lawyer, John Clune. He said the agents didn’t appear to be pursuing her tips about people who might corroborate her allegation.
“We have great concern that the FBI is not conducting — or not being permitted to conduct — a serious investigation,” Clune tweeted.
Michael Avenatti, Swetnick’s lawyer, said she had not spoken to the FBI either.
The FBI has interviewed Tim Gaudette, according to his attorney. Gaudette says that as a high school classmate, he hosted a party noted on Kavanaugh's 1982 calendar that included several people Ford identified as being present on the night she was assaulted.
McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that he was determined to bring the matter to a close as quickly as possible, declaring: “The Senate will vote on Judge Kavanaugh here on this floor this week.” Under Senate rules, the earliest the Senate could hold a preliminary vote on Kavanaugh is Friday, with a final vote on Saturday.Background check investigations by the FBI are generally kept confidential, and McConnell said that will likely remain the case for Kavanaugh as well.
“We’ll get an FBI report soon. It’ll be made available to each senator, and only senators will be allowed to look at it,” he said. “That’s the way these reports are always handled.”
That would likely disappoint some other Republican senators, many of whom see the dispute as a potential fault line as they head into the November elections.
“I don’t anticipate us voting before we know the results of the report, everybody’s had a chance to review the report and the American people know what’s in the report,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who supports the nominee. “That would be my preference.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), another supporter, said senators should be allowed time to read the notes of the FBI agents who conduct the interviews, and at least some of the information should be released.
“I think it’s important that the results in some form be shared with the public,” he said.
Democrats also pushed for release of the FBI report, as well as a wider investigation into Kavanaugh. They also called for sufficient time to review the report before voting.
“The FBI must not be handcuffed and their results must be made public,” said Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) chided Democrats, saying they were trying to interfere in the investigation.
"I’m confident that the FBI agents tasked with this responsibility will not succumb to public political pressure or politicians telling the agency how to do its job," he said in a statement. "Respectfully, the career public servants and professionals at the FBI know what they’re doing and how best to conduct a background investigation."
It’s not yet known what it will take to satisfy the three Republican senators — Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine — who joined Democrats in calling for an FBI investigation.
The full Senate was originally expected to vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination early this week, but McConnell agreed to a delay under pressure after Thursday’s hearing led to a public outcry — and pushback from the three Republicans who can determine whether he is approved by the narrowly divided body.
Flake last week described the FBI investigation as a key step toward ensuring the American public maintains confidence in the nation’s highest court. On Tuesday, he suggested he had additional reservations about Kavanaugh, expressing concern about the judge’s angry tone while responding to questions from Democrats at last week’s Senate hearing.
“I told my wife, ‘I hope that I would sound that indignant if I felt I was unjustly maligned,’” Flake said at a forum sponsored by the Atlantic magazine. “But then it went on. And the interaction with the members was sharp and partisan, and that concerns me. I tell myself, you give a little leeway because of what he’s been through. But on the other hand, we can’t have this on the court.”
Trump, who nominated Kavanaugh in July, told reporters he had no reservations about the judge’s behavior at the hearing.
“I think he was fighting people that were making very tough charges against him and I thought he did very well,” Trump said, calling Kavanaugh a “high-quality person” and a “top intellect.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has become one of the nominee’s most outspoken defenders on Capitol Hill, said Trump should renominate Kavanaugh next year if he fails to win Senate approval.
“It would — in effect — be appealing the Senate's verdict directly to the American people,” Graham said in a statement on Tuesday. “The midterm elections are only 35 days away and a new group of senators may view Judge Kavanaugh's nomination very differently after hearing from the voters in their states.”
FBI background reports on Supreme Court nominees are typically not released, in part because they contain confidential information. They are stored in a safe on Capitol Hill and only a few staff members have access, said Gregg Nunziata, former chief nominations counsel to Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans.
“This is not an ad hoc process that was invented for this nomination,” he said. “The only thing different about this is it is public and it is in the press.”
Sometimes portions of the reports can become public. In 1991, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) read from the FBI report into Anita Hill's allegations that she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, whom President George H.W. Bush had nominated by to the Supreme Court. Thomas was later confirmed.
The latest delay has given Kavanaugh’s political opponents and reporters more time to dig into his background, something Republicans were hoping to avoid when they agreed to the FBI investigation.
The New York Times obtained a 1985 police report, for example, that said Kavanaugh was questioned after a bar fight in New Haven, Conn., where he attended Yale University. Kavanaugh was accused of throwing ice at another person at the bar.
Chad Ludington, a college classmate, had hinted at the incident in an earlier statement and suggested Kavanaugh was not being truthful about his drinking.
“I can unequivocally say that in denying the possibility that he ever blacked out from drinking, and in downplaying the degree and frequency of his drinking, Brett has not told the truth,” Ludington told CNN.
Several other people from Kavanaugh’s past came forward to defend him.
"I never saw Brett black out or not be able to remember the prior evening’s events, nor did I ever see Brett act aggressive, hostile, or in a sexually aggressive manner to women,” Dan Murphy, who lived with Kavanaugh at Yale, said in a statement.
Whether or not the FBI report becomes public, the investigation is unlikely to provide the clarity that partisans on both sides of the aisle say they want.
Michael B. Mukasey, who served as attorney general under President George W. Bush, said agents don’t reach a definitive conclusion after conducting a series of interviews for a background check.
“They are not looking to make determinations of credibility or what absolute facts are,” Mukasey said. He added, “The background investigation doesn’t draw conclusions. It provides the statement of witnesses.”
Staff writer Jackie Calmes contributed to this report.