WASHINGTON — President Trump, ceding to a request from Senate Republican leaders facing an insurrection in their ranks, ordered the FBI on Friday to reopen a background investigation of Brett Kavanaugh, his nominee to the Supreme Court, and examine the allegations of sexual assault that have been made against him.
The announcement plunged Kavanaugh’s nomination into new turmoil after a tumultuous week on Capitol Hill, and will delay, by as much as a week, a final confirmation vote. It came only 24 hours after the judge and one of his accusers, Christine Blasey Ford, each gave emotional testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that led many Republicans to think Kavanaugh’s confirmation was inevitable.
Trump and the Republican leaders had little choice but to ask Trump to order the FBI inquiry after Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, first announced he was supporting Kavanaugh, and then, in a stunning reversal, said he would not vote to confirm him without an FBI investigation first. With a handful of allies in a closely divided Senate, Flake, a conservative but an outspoken critic of the president, could determine the future of the Kavanaugh nomination, and that gave him leverage over Senate Republicans as well as the president.
“We ought to do what we can to make sure we do all due diligence with a nomination this important,” Flake told his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee after extracting a promise from Republican leaders to delay the final vote on the nomination until after the FBI investigation. “This country is being ripped apart here.”
Trump, who had hoped Kavanaugh would be sworn in by the time the Supreme Court opens its next term on Monday, said he was ordering the FBI to conduct what he called a “supplemental” investigation that he said “must be limited in scope and completed in less than a week,” as the Republican Senate leadership had asked for.
The FBI had already completed a background check on Kavanaugh, and it was unclear what the parameters of the new inquiry would be. Some senators said that would be up to the FBI, but Republicans especially questioned whether the new investigation would be able to answer even basic questions about alleged episodes that occurred decades ago.
The delay also thrusts the FBI, an increasing target of Trump’s ire, into the center of a politically charged controversy in the #MeToo period.
Kavanaugh said in a statement Friday that he would continue to cooperate with investigators to clear his name. Debra S. Katz, a lawyer for Ford, said her client welcomed the development but not the “artificial limits” imposed by senators. Mark Judge, a friend of Kavanaugh’s identified by Ford and another accuser at the scene of the episodes, said through a lawyer that he would cooperate with investigators.
The delay cast a cloud over what Republicans expected to be a triumphant day, but they still had reason to be optimistic: Despite adamant Democratic opposition, they were able to muscle the nomination through the Judiciary Committee with an 11-10 vote and send it to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation.
Flake had already announced his intention to vote in favor of Kavanaugh’s confirmation Friday morning when, on his way to the committee meeting room, he was confronted by protesters who tearfully told him that they had been sexually assaulted. Then, after the committee chairman, Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, set a 1:30 p.m. vote, he began to waver, and retreated into an anteroom with colleagues of both parties.
After nearly an hour of hushed conversations, as well as calls to law enforcement officials and other undecided Republicans, Flake emerged to ask for an investigation that would be “limited in time and scope to the current allegations that are there,” siding with Democrats who have repeatedly requested an inquiry.
With that stipulation, the committee quickly voted along party lines to recommend to the full Senate that Kavanaugh be confirmed.
After the vote, the panel’s Republican members, looking somber, streamed into the Capitol suite of Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader. McConnell, of Kentucky, voiced the frustration shared by other Republicans on the committee: More accusations — false ones, they said — were all but certain to surface, he said, according to a senior Republican official familiar with the conversation. And with Democrats bent on opposing Kavanaugh, there would be no tangible benefit from an investigation.
But holding only the narrowest of majorities, 51-49, McConnell had little choice but to agree.
Grassley put on a good face for reporters after the meeting, saying it had been “a good day today by moving the nominee.”
Even before an investigation was reopened, it appeared that Republican fears could be founded. Michael Avenatti, a lawyer for one of the accusers, announced Friday on Twitter that Julie Swetnick, one of his clients, would tell her story “directly to the American people” this weekend because Republicans have not allowed her to testify under oath.
Still, Republican senators who had insisted for days that no FBI investigation was necessary said on Friday they were confident the FBI could work quickly. The bureau has looked at Kavanaugh six times in the past, but it has never investigated the specific accusations raised in recent weeks.
“I’ve never felt better about it, quite frankly,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, citing Kavanaugh’s performance on Thursday.
Trump said Friday that he found Ford’s testimony credible and “very compelling, and she looks like a very fine woman to me.” He had no message for the senators considering the nomination. “They have to do what they think is right and be comfortable with themselves,” he said.
After days of pleading for an FBI investigation into accusations of sexual misconduct raised by Ford as well as two other women who have made accusations against Kavanaugh, Swetnick and Deborah Ramirez, Democrats said they were pleased by the president’s announcement.
“What it comes down to is the Senate always reminds you in these critical moments, that one or two senators can make a difference,” said Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, a member of the Judiciary Committee.
But elsewhere, passions were running high. Anti-Kavanaugh protesters roamed the halls of the Senate, and there was a heavy police presence.
Behind the scenes, the White House and the Judiciary Committee Republicans were working Friday to reassure other wavering senators allied with the Arizona senator. They were increasingly confident that they would have the votes of Senators Susan Collins, Republican of Maine; Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska; and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, one of a number of Democratic incumbents running for reelection in November.
Another Democrat facing a difficult reelection battle, Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana, announced Friday that he would vote against Kavanaugh, saying he would “gladly welcome the opportunity to work with President Trump on a new nominee.”
Collins supported the Judiciary Committee’s move to request a supplemental background investigation on the nominee, saying on Twitter Friday that she backs “this sensible agreement.”
Material from The Washington Post was used in this report.