Monday 18 November 2019

Row breaks out over FBI report on Kavanaugh

The conservative jurist’s prospects for winning Senate confirmation to the Supreme Court remain at the mercy of five wavering senators.

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh (Tom Williams/Pool Image via AP)
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh (Tom Williams/Pool Image via AP)

By Alan Fram and Lisa Mascaro, Associated Press

A high-stakes partisan row has quickly broken out over a confidential FBI report about allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually abused women three decades ago.

Republicans have claimed investigators found “no hint of misconduct” while Democrats accused the White House of slapping crippling constraints on the probe.

The verbal battling commenced as the conservative jurist’s prospects for winning Senate confirmation to the Supreme Court remained at the mercy of five wavering senators, with an initial, critical vote looming on Friday.

It followed the FBI’s early-morning release of its investigation, which President Donald Trump reluctantly ordered under pressure from a handful of wavering Republican senators.

“There’s nothing in it that we didn’t already know,” Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley said in a written statement.

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Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (Alex Brandon/AP)

The Republican said he based his view on a briefing from committee aides and added: “This investigation found no hint of misconduct.”

Top Democrats hit back after getting their own briefing.

The judiciary panel’s top Democrat Dianne Feinstein said it appeared that the White House had “blocked the FBI from doing its job”.

She said that while Democrats had agreed to limit the probe’s scope, “we did not agree that the White House should tie the FBI’s hands”.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already started a process that will produce a crucial test vote in his polarised chamber on Friday on Mr Kavanaugh’s fate.

Should Republicans get the majority of votes they need – and vice president Mike Pence is available to cast the tiebreaker, if necessary – that would set up a decisive roll call on his confirmation, probably over the weekend.

Ms Feinstein complained that agents had not interviewed Mr Kavanaugh or Christine Blasey Ford, who has testified that he sexually attacked her in a locked bedroom during a high school gathering in 1982.

She also said lawyers for Deborah Ramirez, who has alleged Mr Kavanaugh exposed himself to her when both were at Yale, had no indication the FBI had reached out to people she had offered for corroboration.

Mr Grassley said the FBI could not “locate any third parties who can attest to any of the allegations”, and he said there is “no contemporaneous evidence”.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats’ fears that the “very limited process” laid out for the investigation would restrain the FBI “have been realised”.

He also said: “I disagree with Senator Grassley’s statement that there was no hint of misconduct.”

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Dianne Feinstein speaks to the media, accompanied by Chuck Schumer (Alex Brandon/AP)

Neither side provided any detail about what the report said, constrained by years-old arrangements that require the results of FBI background checks to remain confidential.

Earlier, White House spokesman Raj Shah rebuffed Democrats’ complaints, saying: “What critics want is a neverending fishing expedition into high school drinking.”

He said the FBI reached out to 10 people and interviewed nine, including “several individuals at the request of the Senate, and had a series of follow-up interviews … following certain leads”.

While the FBI interviews were to focus on sexual assault allegations, Democrats have also questioned Mr Kavanaugh’s drinking habits during high school and college and dishonest comments they say he has made about his background.

Mr Kavanaugh has said stories of his bad behaviour while drinking are exaggerated.

Three women have accused him of sexual misconduct in separate incidents in the 1980s.

Mr Kavanaugh, 53, now a judge on the powerful District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, has denied the claims.

The White House received the FBI report at around 3am on Thursday.

Mr Trump weighed in hours later in a tweet in which he denounced what he called “the harsh and unfair treatment” of Mr Kavanaugh.

“This great life cannot be ruined by mean” and “despicable Democrats and totally uncorroborated allegations!” he said.

Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth told reporters that time slots for reading the FBI file are so full that senators are being told they might have to wait until Friday to read it.

“They’re so swamped,” she said.

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