President Trump said on Monday that any limits placed on the FBI probe into allegations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh are at the behest of Republicans in the Senate.
“My White House is doing whatever the senators want,” Trump told reporters during a Rose Garden news conference, in an infrequent show of deference to the legislative branch. “I’m open to whatever they want. The one thing I want is speed.”
“We don’t want to go on a witch hunt, do we?” Trump said, echoing his constant critique of the Justice Department probe into possible complicity by his campaign in Russian meddling in the 2016 election and his possible obstruction of the investigation.
“The FBI should interview anybody that they want within reason,” he said.
Trump announced the investigation Friday under pressure from several Senate Republicans who are considered swing votes on confirming Kavanaugh, but he said it should be limited in scope to existing accusations and wrap up in a week. Because the FBI is an executive agency, the president — not the Senate -- has authority over the probe, a point he acknowledged Monday even as he told reporters his directions to the FBI were Senate Republicans’ ideas.
His comments came as Democrats and other critics questioned why a third accuser, Julie Swetnick, has not been contacted by agents and as news reports said the FBI has been told not to pursue certain witnesses or leads.
With the news conference televised live, Trump told a national audience that he knows little of Swetnick but “heard that the third one has -- I have no idea if this is true -- has very little credibility.”
The first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology researcher with Palo Alto University and the Stanford Medical School, said that she hasn’t been contacted by the FBI, according to a person working with her who declined to be identified in order to speak more freely. As Ford recounted in her Thursday testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, ahead of Kavanaugh’s appearance, he allegedly forced her into a bedroom when he was 17 and she 15, and drunkenly sexually assaulted her before she escaped.
On Sunday, FBI agents spoke with the second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, who’s alleged that Kavanaugh, when they were freshmen at Yale University, exposed himself and forced her to touch his genitals during a drinking game.
Led by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, nine Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter Monday to White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn II and FBI Director Christopher Wray requesting that Swetnick be interviewed, as well as other potential witnesses whose names were not made public.
The committee approved Kavanaugh’s nomination on Friday by a party-line vote, only after Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona demanded the reopened FBI background check.
The Democrats’ letter also sought information about the scope of the investigation, “what the White House directed the FBI to investigate” and other steps taken. The senators said that they wanted copies of witness interviews and a list of witnesses who refused to cooperate.
Feinstein aides said on Monday afternoon that the White House has not responded to the letter.
By most accounts, McGahn, Trump’s counsel, is working with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to restrict the FBI. McConnell said from the Senate on Monday that it will vote “this week” on Kavanaugh’s nomination regardless of Democrats’ protests.
“I bet almost anything,” he said, “that after [the investigation] runs its course in the next few days, we will then be treated to a lecture that anything short of a totally unbounded fishing expedition of indefinite duration is too limited or too arbitrary or somehow insufficient.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican who is Kavanaugh’s most vocal advocate, told constituents in South Carolina on Monday that the investigation is limited to interviewing Ramirez as well as the people Ford identified as being at the party where she says Kavanaugh assaulted her.
“That’s the scope of the inquiry and it should be done this week,” Graham said, later suggesting it could be done as soon as Tuesday. “We’ll look at what they’ve got,” he added, and then the Senate will vote.
Flake, appearing at an event in Boston on Monday, said that he’d spoken Sunday with the White House counsel’s office and other senators “to make sure that any current credible allegation that has been made is fully investigated.”
“We certainly want the FBI to do a real investigation and we are working to make sure that that happens,” he said. “It does no good to have an investigation that just gives us more cover, for example. We actually need to find out what we can find out.”
Flake warned, however, that a resolution of Ford’s allegation from that summer night in 1982 will be hard to come by, given the passage of time and the likelihood some potential witnesses won’t cooperate.
Trump, in his news conference, continued to cast Kavanaugh and his family as the victims, without mentioning the accusers’ claims of personal trauma, and warned that Kavanaugh’s experience would discourage others from seeking either elective office or federal jobs that require Senate confirmation.
“It’s unfair to him at this point,” Trump said. “What his wife is going through, what his beautiful children are going through, it’s not describable... It’s not fair.”
Trump insisted that Kavanaugh had been candid during his Senate testimony, when he was under oath, about his drinking in high school and college. Several Kavanaugh acquaintances from his younger years subsequently contradicted him, however, and on Sunday a Yale classmate, Chad Ludington, issued a statement that called the testimony “a blatant mischaracterization by Brett himself of his drinking at Yale.”
“Brett was a frequent drinker, and a heavy drinker,” Ludington wrote. “I know, because, especially in our first two years of college, I often drank with him.”
He described seeing Kavanaugh “on many occasions” slurring his words and “staggering from alcohol consumption, not all of which was beer,” and said he was “often belligerent and aggressive,” once throwing a beer in a man’s face, prompting a fight that landed a mutual friend in jail.
Trump again attacked Senate Democrats, in keeping with Republicans’ political strategy of focusing on them rather than the accusers. The president singled out Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, recalling that the Democrat had mischaracterized his military service in the Vietnam era, and he suggested without detail that he had information that could embarrass at least one other Democrat.
“I happen to know some United States senators -- one who is, on the other side, who’s pretty aggressive,” Trump said. “I’ve seen that person in very bad situations, OK? I’ve seen that person in very, very bad situations, somewhat compromising.”
Asked for specifics, Trump said he would “save it for a book, like everybody else.”
Though Trump said he would keep an open mind about the FBI investigation, he said that he was not troubled by questions about Kavanaugh’s judicial temperament and future impartiality that arose after his angry allegation, during his Senate testimony, that Democrats and the Clintons are orchestrating a vendetta against him.
“You’d have to ask him but I can say this: He’s been treated really, really horribly,” Trump said.
The controversy has apparently cost Kavanaugh public support in the two weeks since Ford first went public with her accusation against him.
A Quinnipiac poll released Monday showed that, compared with its earlier poll in early September, by month’s end Kavanaugh was opposed by far more Democrats and, in a sharp reversal, more independents opposed him than favored him. Broad Republican support declined, but not by a statistically significant amount.