WASHINGTON — The White House has authorized the FBI to expand its abbreviated investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh by interviewing anyone it deems necessary as long as the review is finished by the end of the week, two people briefed on the matter said Monday.
The directive came in the past 24 hours after a backlash from Democrats, who criticized the White House for limiting the scope of the bureau’s investigation into President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court. The FBI has already interviewed the four witnesses its agents were originally asked to talk to, the people said.
Trump said Monday that he favored a “comprehensive” FBI investigation and had no problem if the bureau wanted to question Kavanaugh or even a third accuser who was left off the initial witness list if she seemed credible. His only concerns he said, were that the investigation be wrapped up quickly and that it take direction from the Senate Republicans who will determine whether Kavanaugh is confirmed.
“The FBI should interview anybody that they want within reason, but you have to say within reason,” Trump told reporters in the Rose Garden after an event celebrating a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico. “But they should also be guided, and I’m being guided, by what the senators are looking for.”
Senate Republican leaders, however, made clear that they planned to move forward with the confirmation without waiting for the results of the investigation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate would take a procedural vote Friday so it could move quickly to final confirmation once the inquiry was over.
Chastising Democrats on the Senate floor, McConnell said that he would “bet almost anything” that they would be unsatisfied with the scope of the investigation regardless of how far it went. Reading through a selected summary of Democrats’ comments about the matter, he said, “Do these actions suggest this has ever been about finding the truth?”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that the White House counsel should make public what he has told the FBI and emphasize that it was not “the partisan Republican Senate staff that is directing this investigation.” In an interview, Schumer added, “You can do a full investigation in the seven-day requirement, and that’s what senators on both sides of the aisle expect.”
The revised White House instruction amounted to a risky bet that the FBI will not find anything new in the next four days that could change the public view of the allegations. Republicans have resisted an open-ended investigation that could head in unpredictable directions. But the limited time frame could minimize the danger even as it increases the likelihood that FBI interviews do not resolve the conflicting accounts.
Trump said he instructed his White House counsel, Don McGahn, over the weekend to tell the FBI to carry out an open investigation, although he included the caveat that it should accommodate the desires of Senate Republicans. McGahn followed through with a call to the FBI, according to the people briefed on the matter.
“I want them to do a very comprehensive investigation, whatever that means, according to the senators and the Republicans and the Republican majority,” Trump said. “I want them to do that. I want it to be comprehensive. I actually think it’s a good thing for Judge Kavanaugh.”
Asked if the FBI should question Kavanaugh, Trump said: “I think so. I think it’s fine if they do. I don’t know. That’s up to them.”
As for Julie Swetnick, the third accuser who has claimed that Kavanaugh attended parties during high school where girls were gang raped, Trump said he would not object to her being interviewed. “It wouldn’t bother me at all. Now I don’t know all three of the accusers. Certainly I imagine they’re going to interview two. The third one I don’t know much about.”
He added that he understood she had “very little credibility,” but added that “if there is any credibility, interview the third one.”
Trump again accepted Kavanaugh’s denials and portrayed the process as deeply unfair to his nominee. But he added that he would reconsider the nomination if the FBI turned up something that warranted it.
“Certainly if they find something I’m going to take that into consideration,” the president said. “Absolutely. I have a very open mind. The person that takes that position is going to be there a long time.”
Trump ordered the one-week FBI investigation Friday after Senator Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who’s a swing vote on the nomination, insisted that the allegations be examined before he committed to voting to confirm Kavanaugh on the floor. But the White House and Senate Republicans gave the FBI a list of just four people to question: Mark Judge and P.J. Smyth, high school friends of Kavanaugh’s; Leland Keyser, a high school friend of his main accuser, Christine Blasey Ford; and Deborah Ramirez, another of the judge’s accusers. Agents may return to Judge for more questions.
Flake expressed concern Monday that the inquiry not be limited and said he had pressed to make sure that happens. “It does no good to have an investigation that gives us more cover, for example,” he said in a public appearance in Boston. “We actually need to find out what we can find out.”
Senator Chris Coons, the Delaware Democrat who worked with Flake to initiate the limited investigation, called McGahn on Sunday after reading reports about the narrow mandate. Coons said he was alarmed by what he heard and informed other senators who pushed for the inquiry in hopes that they would relay their own concern to the McConnell.
“He said some things I found very reassuring about doing it by the book and sharing promptly interview product with the Judiciary Committee,” Coons said in an interview Monday with the News Journal of Delaware. “But he also said things that I found very concerning about the scope, the number of witnesses, the process.”
Other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, led by Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, sent a letter to McGahn and Christopher Wray, the FBI director, on Monday providing a list of two dozen witnesses they believed must be interviewed for an inquiry to be credible.
In addition to the four witnesses already interviewed by the bureau, the list includes Blasey; Swetnick; Christopher Garrett, who dated Blasey in high school and introduced her to Kavanaugh; and other high school and college friends of Kavanaugh’s identified in press reports. The senators also said the bureau ought to examine employment records from a Safeway grocery store where Blasey said Judge worked around the time of her encounter with Kavanaugh.
“We ask that you notify us of the scope of the investigation and what the White House directed the FBI to investigate, as well as what steps the FBI will be taking,” the senators wrote. “We also ask that, upon completion of your work, you provide copies of all witness interviews, a list of all witnesses who refused to cooperate in the Bureau’s investigation, and a full report to each member of the Senate.”
Coons, notably, was the only Democrat on the committee not to sign the letter.
In interviews, several former senior FBI officials said that they could think of no previous instance when the White House restricted the bureau’s ability to interview potential witnesses during a background check. Chuck Rosenberg, who served as chief of staff under James Comey, the former FBI director, said background investigations were frequently reopened, but that the bureau decides how to pursue new allegations.
“The White House normally tells the FBI what issue to examine, but would not tell the FBI how to examine it, or with whom they should speak,” he said. “It’s highly unusual — in fact, as far I know, uniquely so — for the FBI to be directed to speak only to a limited number of designated people.”
In his comments Monday, Trump expressed indignation that Democrats were questioning Kavanaugh’s youthful drinking and suggested some of them were being hypocritical because they themselves abuse alcohol.
“I happen to know some United States senators, one who’s on the other side who’s pretty aggressive,” he said. “I’ve seen that person in some very bad situations,” which he called “somewhat compromising.”
He would not identify whom he meant, but he did later single out Blumenthal, a favorite target, for misleading the public for years about his military service during the Vietnam War. “This guy lied when he was the attorney general of Connecticut,” Trump said. “He lied.”
The president was referring to a 2010 article in The New York Times reporting that Blumenthal had told audiences that he had “served in Vietnam,” implying he had fought in the war, when in fact he served in the Marine Reserve in the United States at the time. Blumenthal noted that he did serve in “the Vietnam era” but said he took “full responsibility” for what he called “a few misplaced words.”
In attacking the senator, the president went beyond the known facts, asserting that Blumenthal had boasted of fighting in Da Nang. “We call him ‘Da Nang Richard,'” he said. “And now he’s up there talking like he’s holier than thou.” In fact, the Times article did not report that Blumenthal had ever claimed to fight in Da Nang or any other specific battle. Trump also said incorrectly that Blumenthal dropped out of his Senate race as a result, but won anyway; he never dropped out.
Trump’s comments came at the same time that Senate Republicans released a five-page report questioning the account of Blasey, the California university professor who also goes by her married name Ford. The report was written by Rachel Mitchell, the Arizona sex crimes prosecutor hired by Republicans to handle the questioning of Blasey and Kavanaugh for them at last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Blasey said at the hearing that a drunken Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, groped her, tried to take her clothes off and covered her mouth when she tried to scream during a high school party in the 1980s.
“A ‘he said, she said’ case is incredibly difficult to prove,” Mitchell wrote. “But this case is even weaker than that.” The report noted that the other people Blasey identified being at the gathering did not remember anything like what she described and it pointed out other inconsistencies that it suggested undercut her credibility.
“I do not think that a reasonable prosecutor would bring this case based on the evidence before the committee,” Mitchell wrote. “Nor do I believe that this evidence is sufficient to satisfy the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard.”
The lack of corroboration has complicated Blasey’s story. Not only has Kavanaugh denied her accusation, the other boy she identified being in the room at the time, Judge, has said that he does not remember anything matching her description and that he never saw Kavanaugh mistreat women. Two other people Blasey recalled being elsewhere in the house then, Smyth and Keyser, also told the committee in written statements that they did not remember the party in question, although Keyser has separately told The Washington Post that she believes Blasey, a point not made in Mitchell’s report.
Mitchell also focused on other seemingly less significant distinctions, such as the fact that Blasey was described as afraid to fly but has nonetheless flown to Washington and other destinations.
Mitchell argued that Blasey was inconsistent because she testified that she told her husband she was the victim of “sexual assault” but told The Post that she had told him she was the victim of “physical abuse.”
Mitchell did not explain why she thought “sexual assault” and “physical abuse” were inconsistent and she incorrectly implied that Blasey used the phrase “physical abuse” when in fact those words were not in quotation marks in the Post article and were therefore the reporter’s paraphrase. Moreover, The Post attributed that to her husband, not to Blasey.
Mitchell also made much of the fact that Blasey said she could not remember whether a polygraph test that she took in August occurred on the day of her grandmother’s funeral or the day after, nor could she remember whether it was recorded. And she could not remember whether she showed notes from her therapist to a Post reporter or simply described them.