Above Photo: Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the FBI investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against Brett Kavanaugh “appears to be a very thorough” one. Senators were permitted to view one copy of the report Thursday. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Jeff Flake said the report doesn’t contain additional corroborating information while Susan Collins called it ‘very thorough.’
Key undecided Republican senators are signaling on Thursday the FBI report on sexual misconduct allegations against Brett Kavanaugh may give them the confidence they need to back the embattled Supreme Court nominee.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told reporters that “we’ve seen no additional corroborating information” about alleged sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh in high school and college, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the investigation “appears to be a very thorough” one. But Collins made clear that she remains undecided on Kavanaugh and wants to read more of it herself.
GOP staff briefed some senators early in the day Thursday on the FBI’s interviews of nine individuals connected to the allegations against Kavanaugh, according to Republicans. At noon, Collins returned to personally read the interviews.
“I didn’t go to the briefing because I’m going to read it myself. I’m going to go in, put my eyes to it,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), another undecided senator, on the way into a viewing.
Kavanaugh has 48 public supporters, all Republicans. In addition to three undecided Republicans — Collins, Flake, and Murkowski — Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is also on the fence. Kavanaugh needs to pick up at least two of those four votes to confirmation and advance in a key procedural vote on Friday.
Manchin left the secure facility where senators are viewing the FBI report and said that he would return Friday morning to finish examining it.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), another long-undecided vote on Kavanaugh, said on Thursday that she would oppose the nomination. “Both sides horribly handled the process around this nomination. We must learn from these mistakes,” said Heitkamp, whom polls show trailing her pro-Kavanaugh reelection challenger, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).
With Kavanaugh still short of the public commitments he needs to get confirmed, a partisan battle broke out Thursday over the FBI’s report. Republicans claimed the limited inquiry had effectively cleared him by offering no corroborating evidence, while Democrats countered that the bureau had done the opposite.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who last week forged a deal with Flake to give a bipartisan imprimatur to the FBI probe, said the investigation “falls short of my expectations for this investigation.”
Kavanaugh’s GOP backers, however, touted the short FBI review — it lasted only five days — as providing enough information to rebut allegations raised by Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez, who have accused the judge of sexual misconduct.
“They asked specific questions about these events Dr. Ford, for example, or Ms. Ramirez had talked about,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said. “So they found people who were either there or contemporaries and, I think, asked all the questions. And there was just no recollection of these things they’re alleging.”
“I am more confident than ever on Brett Kavanaugh, that the allegations levied against him were not proven to be more reliable. Quite the opposite,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said after he left a secure room in the Capitol basement where the report is being kept.
Another Kavanaugh supporter, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), left the secure viewing room and told reporters twice that “I really wish you could see” the report, which he described as lacking corroboration: “There are things in here that really make me angry.”
But Democrats said the FBI’s work demonstrated the exact opposite of corroboration, demanding once again that a redacted version be released to the public.
“Having received a briefing on all of the documents, I disagree with [Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck] Grassley’s statement that there was no hint of misconduct” in the report, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a press conference.
Coons acknowledged that the report might discourage both sides in what’s become a bitterly polarizing battle over the allegations against Kavanaugh. “There will be folks disappointed, who say this does not completely and clearly exonerate Judge Kavanaugh,” he said. “And there will be folks disappointed, saying: This does not clearly corroborate Dr. Ford.”
The FBI’s time-limited report into the claims against Kavanaugh arrived on Capitol Hill early Thursday, launching the day of viewing by senators that promises to make or break his Supreme Court confirmation prospects.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has set up a critical procedural vote Friday on Kavanaugh’s nomination, with a final vote coming as early as Saturday provided that the 53-year-old appeals court judge hits no further hurdles in the chamber.
Several GOP senators said the FBI tried to interview 10 people, while noting that one witness declined to be interviewed. GOP senators initially asked for four witnesses to be interviewed. Kavanaugh friend Mark Judge, whom Ford alleged was at the party in which the assault occurred, was interviewed for three hours, senators said. Corker indicated that some material reflecting “thousands” of Kavanaugh calls the FBI received on its tipline was also part of the release to the Senate.
After receiving a staff briefing on the new FBI report, Grassley summed it up succinctly: “There’s nothing in it that we didn’t already know.”
“This investigation found no hint of misconduct and the same is true of the six prior FBI background investigations conducted during Judge Kavanaugh’s 25 years of public service,” Grassley said. “I trust that the career agents of the FBI have done their work independent of political or partisan considerations. That’s exactly what senators from both sides asked for.”
Kavanaugh’s opponents complained loudly over the curtailed scope of the FBI’s investigation, which has omitted interviews with friends and acquaintances of Kavanaugh who have offered to share stories about his drinking habits that might buttress allegations by his critics that he misled the Senate. But Corker said that questions about drinking and drug use were asked by agents in the most recent round of interviews about Kavanaugh.
The FBI’s background inquiry is not designed as “an investigation — or criminal probe, for example. It doesn’t seek to find a specific outcome,” said White House spokesman Raj Shah. “It seeks to find information for decision makers. The Senate has set a scope on what they are interested in.”
Collins, Murkowski, and Flake also may vote “yes” on Friday, which would allow the nomination to move forward procedurally, as an institutional matter that’s unrelated to how they will ultimately vote on Kavanaugh. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a mentor of Flake’s, famously voted to move ahead with last year’s GOP Obamacare repeal bill before voting against it in the end.
Kavanaugh is accused by Ford, a California-based professor, of a sexual assault when both were in high school. Ramirez, a Yale classmate, alleged Kavanaugh exposed himself to her during a drunken dormitory party. Ramirez was interviewed by the FBI for its report but Ford was not, a decision panned by her lawyers, who provided a list of people the FBI could have interviewed if they wanted to corroborate her claims.
Ford’s legal team called the FBI probe “a stain on the process, on the FBI and on our American ideal of justice.”
Ramirez’s attorneys on Friday sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray saying they were “deeply disappointed” that the FBI didn’t follow up with more than 20 people they provided who may have relevant information about Ramirez’s allegation.
A third Kavanaugh accuser, Julie Swetnick, has faced harsh personal attacks on her credibility from Republicans, as has her Democratic-linked lawyer, Michael Avenatti. Swetnick’s allegations of Kavanaugh involvement in 1980s-era sexual misconduct appear to have been omitted from the FBI’s latest inquiry.
Senators will be permitted to view one copy of the FBI’s Kavanaugh report on Thursday, accessing it in a secure facility consistent with a 2009 memorandum that governs the handling of such materials. A handful of top aides were cleared to access the report and brief senators. The report itself is being made available to the parties in alternating one-hour shifts throughout the day Thursday.