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Senators struggle to digest FBI’s Kavanaugh report; test vote set

Republican Senator Mitch McConnell (C), the Senate majority leader, arrived on Capitol Hill on Friday. The US Senate girded Friday for a critical, too- close-to-call vote on moving ahead with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Republican Senator Mitch McConnell (C), the Senate majority leader, arrived on Capitol Hill on Friday. The US Senate girded Friday for a critical, too- close-to-call vote on moving ahead with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — One by one came the senators, stepping down a curved staircase and through a set of heavy metal doors, heading toward the highly secured room — technically known as a “sensitive compartmented information facility” — where a single copy of the FBI’s latest report on Judge Brett Kavanaugh was available for their perusal.

“Did I mention this place is weird?” said Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, as he made his way past some 50 reporters and photographers and passed through the doors.

By the end of the day, supporters of Kavanaugh had reason to hope he might be narrowly confirmed. A pair of Republicans whose votes are considered crucial emerged and suggested they were satisfied with what they had seen — though still without committing to support the embattled nominee.

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Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who called for the FBI’s investigation last Friday, told reporters there was “no additional corroborating information” of sex assault allegations in the new documents. Susan Collins of Maine, another critical swing Republican, told reporters “it appeared to be a very thorough investigation.”

Republicans said they were determined to push through to a vote. A procedural vote was scheduled for late Friday morning, and a final confirmation vote could come as early as Saturday. If just Flake and Collins support Kavanaugh, Vice President Mike Pence could break a 50-50 tie and the nominee would win his seat on the Supreme Court.

Eighty-seven days after Kavanaugh was first nominated, his fate hinged on this: stacks of paper in a windowless room in the belly of the Capitol, including 46 pages summarizing FBI interviews about allegations of sexual assault by two women — Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez — that have hobbled his nomination.

Members of both parties, separated by their partisan loyalties, seemed to find in the documents what they wanted to bolster their case — and both sides were left seething by the end of the day.

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“No corroboration. No confirmation of any of these outrageous accusations that have been made against him,” said Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. “Now is the time to quit all of these antics, these hijinks, this circus-like atmosphere and we’ll do that tomorrow morning when we vote and Saturday when we finally vote to confirm this good man to this important position.”

Democrats said the documents told a different story: that of an investigation that was too limited in scope and ignored numerous possible witnesses.

“The most notable part of this report is what’s not in it,” said Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, noting that neither Ford nor Kavanaugh were interviewed as part of the inquiry.

On Thursday, lawyers for both Ford and Ramirez sent letters to the FBI, complaining that agents had not interviewed potential witnesses they had recommended.

At the end of the day, Kavanaugh published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that seemed aimed at assuaging fears about his temperament raised by some who watched his angry testimony at his hearing last week.

“I know that my tone was sharp, and I said a few things I should not have said,” Kavanaugh wrote. He added: “Going forward, you can count on me to be the same kind of judge and person I have been for my entire 28-year legal career: hardworking, even-keeled, open-minded, independent and dedicated to the Constitution and the public good.”

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The atmosphere at the Capitol remained charged throughout the day. Thousands of protesters — most of them opposing the nomination — marched through the streets, stopping to rally outside the Supreme Court and briefly taking over the lobby of a Senate office building before 293 people were arrested. Some carried signs that referred to their own sexual assaults — “I was 13,” one said. The crowd erupted in cheers when the news came that Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, had announced she would vote no on Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Heitkamp, who is up for reelection and trailing in the polls, had voted to support President Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, but said testimony she heard from Kavanaugh last Thursday had called his temperament and integrity into question. She said she believed Ford and added she had heard from “countless” constituents who told her they had been sexually assaulted.

“I can’t get up in the morning and look at the life experience that I’ve had and say yes to Judge Kavanaugh,” Heitkamp said to a local TV station.

The Senate imposed its extraordinary access restrictions to prevent leaks of the FBI investigative documents. Senators described a highly unusual procedure: Inside the secured room was a tall pile of documents from the FBI’s tip line, as well as reports on the previous background checks done on Kavanaugh and documents from the FBI’s most recent inquiry.

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“The whole report, you could stand on it and paint the ceiling,” said Kennedy, the Louisiana Republican, who said the newest report contained information regarding about 10 witnesses.

Kennedy said five of the witnesses were interviewed about the allegations of Ford, who said Kavanaugh drunkenly groped her and tried to remove her clothes at a party in high school, and four discussed Ramirez’s allegations. A 10th declined to speak with the FBI, he said. Mark Judge, a friend of Kavanaugh who Ford claimed was present for her alleged assault, was interviewed for about three hours, Kennedy said.

“I really wish you could read this report. There are things in here that really make me angry,” he added, though he said he could not say what they were.

Reading the report — with only one copy available — was something of a logistical challenge. Democrats read them in small groups, according to Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who teamed up with Cory Booker of New Jersey to comb through the interview notes.

“I think it was the single most preposterous situation that I have ever been put in in my entire career in the Congress,” Markey said, adding that he was concerned valuable information in the pile of FBI tips might never be seen. “The good and the bad, the useful and the useless, is all in one huge pile.”

“If that’s an investigation, it’s a (expletive) investigation,’’ New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, who was the subject of a federal corruption prosecution that ended in a mistrial in 2017, declared on Twitter.

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Later, when Republicans had the room, Judiciary Committee staffers read some of the reports aloud into microphones as the senators listened, according to participants.

“We’re trying to get it all done efficiently,” said Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. “This is unusual circumstances calling for a kind of unusual process.”

Later on Thursday afternoon, Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who has not yet announced how he will vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination, said he was still not done reading.

“They threw us out,” Manchin said, chuckling. “It’s the Republicans’ turn. They have their hour, we have our hour, so I gotta come back tomorrow.”

As he made his way out, he was approached by a woman who said she was a survivor of sexual assault.

Echoing the demonstrators who confronted Flake in an elevator last week, she asked why he was not listening to women like her.

“I am listening to you,” he said, and stepped into the elevator.


Globe correspondent Libby Berry contributed to this report. Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JessBidgood.