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Under pressure, Trump orders FBI to investigate Kavanaugh amid sex misconduct allegations

No Senate confirmation vote will be held on the Supreme Court nominee until after the probe is completed in one week.
Image: Brett Kavanaugh
Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 27, 2018.Erin Schaff / EPA

WASHINGTON — Under pressure from key Republican senators, President Donald Trump on Friday ordered the FBI to conduct an additional background investigation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who faces several sexual misconduct allegations.

"I've ordered the FBI to conduct a supplemental investigation to update Judge Kavanaugh’s file," Trump said in a statement. "As the Senate has requested, this update must be limited in scope and completed in less than one week."

Trump's action — he said recently he had not directed the FBI to investigate because the agency didn't want to get involved — followed an extraordinary call from several key Republican senators to enlist the agency to gather information about the alleged incidents involving Kavanaugh when he was in high school and college before the Senate holds a vote on his confirmation.

The president is the only person who can order such an FBI investigation.

"The supplemental FBI background investigation would be limited to current credible allegations against the nominee and must be completed no later than one week from today," the Senate Judiciary Committee said in a statement.

Republicans had generally opposed an FBI investigation, saying Kavanaugh has been through a half dozen background checks over the years and adding that a new probe would be unlikely to shed much light on the claims because the agency doesn't reach conclusions about who's telling the truth. Democrats, on the other hand, said a fresh investigation could help unearth key facts that would be useful in trying to get to the bottom of the "he said, she said" allegations.

Earlier, Trump, when asked about a possible delay in the full Senate vote in order for the FBI to investigate, told reporters at the White House that he would defer to GOP senators.

"Whatever they think is necessary," he said. "I'm going to the let the Senate handle that. They've been doing a good job. Very professional."

There are three main public accusers of Kavanaugh:

-Christine Blasey Ford, who alleges he attacked her at a party when they were in high school, trying to remove her clothes, grinding against her and putting his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream;

-Deborah Ramirez, who told The New Yorker that Kavanaugh pulled down his pants and exposed himself to her while they were classmates at Yale University and;

-Julie Swetnick, who, in a sworn declaration, accused him of engaging in repeated lewd behavior with women at parties in the early 1980s, and of putting drugs or alcohol in punch to cause women to become inebriated so they could be "gang raped" by male partygoers.

Ford's lawyer, Debra Katz, said in a statement that her client supported the FBI investigation but does not believe there would be any time limit on it.

"A thorough FBI investigation is critical to developing all the relevant facts," Katz said. "Dr. Christine Blasey Ford welcomes this step in the process, and appreciates the efforts of Senators Flake, Murkowski, Manchin and Collins — and all other senators who have supported an FBI investigation — to ensure it is completed before the Senate votes on Judge Kavanaugh's nomination. No artificial limits as to time or scope should be imposed on this investigation."

Kavanaugh said in a statement Friday evening, "Throughout this process, I've been interviewed by the FBI, I've done a number of 'background' calls directly with the Senate, and yesterday, I answered questions under oath about every topic the Senators and their counsel asked me. I’ve done everything they have requested and will continue to cooperate."

Word of the potential new FBI involvement came just hours after Kavanaugh was approved Friday by the Senate Judiciary Committee on an 11-10 party-line vote.

During that meeting, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., issued a surprise call for the full Senate vote to be delayed for one week to allow time for the FBI to reopen its background investigation.

Flake voted in favor of Kavanaugh during the Judiciary Committee vote, but then suggested he may not vote for Kavanaugh on the Senate floor if the FBI investigation does not take place.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, backed Flake's push for a one-week delay in the confirmation vote to give the FBI time to look into the allegations. "I think it's important that we do our due diligence and this is yet another step in that due diligence," she said.

That set in motion Trump's orders to the FBI. If Flake and one or two other GOP senators opposed moving the nomination to the Senate floor for a vote, that could stall or even doom Kavanaugh's confirmation. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who has not indicated how she intends to vote on the nomination, previously indicated she backs an FBI investigation.

Meanwhile, if the nomination eventually gets to the floor for a vote, there are four key senators, two Republicans and two Democrats, who have not yet indicated how they intend to vote. The nomination would fail if all Democrats vote no and the two Republicans on the fence defect and oppose Kavanaugh.

Earlier Friday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., made another motion that the committee subpoena Mark Judge, whom Ford had identified as a witness to Kavanaugh's alleged assault. The motion was defeated on an 11-to-10 party-line vote.

When Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, then immediately called for a 1:30 p.m. vote, allowing no debate, Democrats were visibly frustrated, angry and upset. When Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J. and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., were called to vote, they sat in their chairs in silence.

"They're not answering because this is so unfair," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

The senators then began speaking on Kavanaugh's nomination, with Democrats taking issue with the nominee's partisan tone in his testimony Thursday, as well as with the lack of an FBI investigation to investigate Ford's allegation.

"In the 25 years on this committee, I have never seen a nominee for any position behave in that matter. Judge Kavanaugh used as much political rhetoric as my Republican colleagues," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said. "She (Ford) was poised, she was credible and she should believed."

Kavanaugh, 53, a federal circuit court judge who was nominated by Trump in July, sharply denied Ford's allegation, blasted lawmakers for their handling of the process and remained adamant about not withdrawing.

"I never sexually assaulted anyone. Not in high school. Not in college. Not ever," he said. “You may defeat me in the final vote, but you'll never get me to quit. Never."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., excoriated the committee as derelict in its duty, instead acting as an "arm" of President Donald Trump's White House.

“This Judiciary Committee is no longer an independent branch of government,” he said. “We are an arm, and a very weak arm, of the Trump White House. Every semblance of independence has disappeared.”

Republicans continued to express outrage at their Democratic colleagues and the timing of Ford's allegation becoming public. Some, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that while they believe something traumatic had happened to Ford in the past, they also believed that Kavanaugh had nothing to do with it.

"I know I am a single white male from South Carolina and I’ve been told shut up, but I will not shut up," said Graham, who put his fury on display during the hearing less than 24 hours earlier.

Graham suggested his party has the right to nominate, and confirm, a nominee of their choosing.

"Elections do matter," he said. He later signaled he wanted to be the committee's next chairman, and that if he were in that position, he would hold a grudge against Democrats.

"If you try to destroy somebody you will not get away with it," Graham added.

As Graham spoke, Democrats at times mumbled to themselves and shook their heads, clearly frustrated with the senator's partisan tone. Klobuchar seemed in disbelief while listening to Graham.

During his remarks, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., read a letter sent late Thursday by the president of the American Bar Association urging the committee to postpone the vote until the FBI could conduct an investigation, and asked again for such a delay.

Grassley responded by dismissing the request, claiming that the president of the American Bar Association doesn’t necessarily “represent the members of the Bar.”

Moments later, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called the ongoing confirmation process "one of the darkest days for the United State Senate" since "the McCarthy hearings back in the 1950s."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., acknowledged her Republican colleagues' dissatisfaction with the fact that Ford’s allegations were made public late in the process, but urged them that the response to the accusation was far more important than the timing of it.

"The question is, what do you do when it happens, when you’re in a position of power," she said. "You may not like that it came in in the final minutes … the question is what do you do when it happens."

"And when it happens, you don't just put it under the rug," she added.

Rebecca Shabad reported from Washington, and Adam Edelman from New York.