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The Kavanaugh conundrum: Trump's FBI grandstanding highlights flaw in the bureau's background check process

This White House has repeatedly undermined the institutions charged with upholding the law.
Image: Donald Trump, Christopher Wray
President Donald Trump with FBI Director Christopher Wray during the FBI National Academy graduation ceremony on Dec. 15, 2017, in Quantico, Va.Evan Vucci / AP file

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation has been stalled by a credible allegation dating back three decades to his high school days at Georgetown Prep. What appeared to be a confirmation certainty is now in question as the reporting victim, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, requests an FBI investigation to substantiate her claims.

And yet, the only entity who can grant Ford’s request seems wholly uninterested in making that happen. President Donald Trump can, with one phone call, request the FBI re-open its background inquiry into Kavanaugh. Thus far he has both refused to issue such a request and uttered false statements about the FBI’s willingness and authority to investigate if he were to do so. Similarly, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee chair, wrongly asserted that this is not a job for the FBI. I disagree. Congress and the White House must take steps to modify the existing memorandum of understanding between the White House and the FBI as well as current protocols so that the bureau can unilaterally and independently pursue logical follow-ups to background inquiries.

Meanwhile, the GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee seems to have learned little from the travesty of the Anita Hill hearings, nor from our evolving cultural understanding of how to handle credible allegations. The White House and the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are so myopically focused on getting Kavanuagh confirmed that they can’t see the logical solution staring them in the face.

By now we are all familiar with the basic facts: Ford asserts that when she was 15, she attended a party where Kavanaugh, then a 17-year-old student at a neighboring school, physically and forcibly restrained her on a bed, groped her and attempted to remove her clothes. Nominee Kavanaugh says this never happened and Mark Judge, who Ford places in the bedroom as well, says he has no recall of this incident. I recite these assertions not because I claim any special knowledge of their veracity but precisely because of the opposite. We have no idea what happened at that house party and we will remain in the dark as long as the White House refuses to let professional fact finders at the FBI do their job.

A brief primer on background investigations may be helpful here. When the White House nominates someone for the Supreme Court, a cabinet position, or senior level appointment in an executive branch agency, the FBI is assigned the task of determining that nominee’s fitness for the job. When new presidential administrations assume power, FBI offices can be brought to a virtual standstill as they complete these often delicate deep dives under crushing time constraints. In FBI parlance, these “SPINS,” or “Special Inquiries,” are designed to not only uncover any derogatory information but also to corroborate the nominees qualifying credentials such as academic degrees, work history and professional stature.

Any rookie FBI agent can recite the acronym used to shape the interview questions posed to colleagues, neighbors, scorned significant others and family members of a nominee — CARLA. CARLA stands for character, aptitude, reputation, loyalty (to our nation) and associations. There are sub-headings under each of those categories — such as finances and temperament — but you get the idea. Here’s the thing though; these SPINs are unlike almost any other investigation the FBI conducts. They are neither criminal nor national security investigations but rather more akin to hiring a private eye to check on your cheating spouse. By that I mean that unlike the FBI’s other work, the FBI’s client in these investigations isn’t the American public, it’s the nominating agency; in this case the White House.

When the FBI closes a SPIN and turns their report over to their “client” at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, only the White House can ask that it be re-opened. This effectively handcuffs our nation’s premier investigative agency from doing what they do best — conducting objective and independent inquiries devoid of political agenda or intent.

Sexual assault allegations often surface many years after the offense because of the unique nature of sexual victimization, psychological trauma, societal failings in addressing victims and the pervasive fear of being victimized all over again. Why should we think such issues would not arise late in the game during SPINs? I would argue that sexual assault allegations are just one of many concerns that should require a re-opening of a background inquiry regardless of who the client is.

The presidential administration has repeatedly undermined the institutions charged with upholding the law, conducting objective investigations and providing unbiased intelligence. That’s why now, more than ever, we need to seriously consider the ground rules that permit any president from precluding the FBI from following up on logical investigative leads they deem pertinent.