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Donald Trump’s quest to get Brett Kavanaugh on Supreme Court may hinge on FBI

President Donald Trump and Republicans who narrowly control the Senate must now wait -- for up to a week -- for the report by FBI, an agency that he has repeatedly attacked and derided as biased against his administration.

world Updated: Sep 29, 2018 17:07 IST
Chris Strohm and Shannon Pettypiece
Chris Strohm and Shannon Pettypiece
Donald Trump,Brett Kavanaugh,Supreme Court
Brett Kavanaugh listens during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, DC.(Bloomberg)

The FBI, which remained on the sidelines during the fierce debate over whether Brett Kavanaugh should be on the Supreme Court, will now play a central role in shaping the outcome of his nomination.

After resisting days of Democratic calls for an FBI probe into accusations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh, the Senate Judiciary Committee asked Friday for a brief investigation that would be “limited to current credible allegations.”

Senator Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who had unexpectedly demanded the move, told reporters that means that in addition to claims by Christine Blasey Ford, who appeared before the committee on Thursday, the FBI could decide whether to look into accusations made by two other women. Kavanaugh has strongly denied all the allegations.

President Donald Trump and Republicans who narrowly control the Senate must now wait -- for up to a week -- for the report by an agency that he has repeatedly attacked and derided as biased against his administration.

Trump ordered the bureau on Friday to conduct a supplemental background inquiry within a week into the accusations. In a tweet on Friday night, he said “just started, tonight, our 7th FBI investigation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. He will someday be recognized as a truly great Justice of The United States Supreme Court!”

A Field Office Job

Yet when FBI agents start interviewing people, they won’t have subpoena power and will face other constraints on how far they can take the investigation, according to current and former law enforcement officials who have knowledge of how background inquiries are conducted.

The Kavanaugh inquiry is expected to be tightly controlled by senior FBI officials working with agents in the Washington and Baltimore field offices who will collectively determine who will be interviewed, what kind of questions to ask and what, if any, evidence to examine, according to a former senior FBI agent.

But the scope of what will be probed is also going to be informed by the substance of the allegations and what Kavanaugh and his accusers have said publicly, the former agent said.

For example, field agents likely will ask about Kavanaugh’s use of alcohol in high school and college more than they would in a normal background investigation, a former official said.

The FBI will do its job in an apolitical way and report its findings, including any new derogatory information about Kavanaugh, to the White House, said Ronald Hosko, a former senior FBI agent. But people should be cautious in any expectations that the FBI alone can resolve the questions over Kavanaugh, Hosko added.

“The FBI has a job to do and that is to find the truth and present it,” he said. “I’m confident that’s what they will do here.”

‘Window Is Open’

“The bureau’s not going to have 50 people over there cooking up leads,” Hosko said. “They’re not looking to find derogatory information but if they find it they’ll present it. The window is open for the next week.”

Agents won’t have the discretion to pursue new leads on their own. Instead, they will be expected to report back to FBI headquarters on what they have learned. Senior bureau officials will then decide whether new leads should be examined and report their findings to the White House, said the former official who asked not to be identified.

Since the inquiry isn’t a criminal investigation, the FBI won’t be making use of a grand jury, according to another former FBI official. Agents won’t be able to subpoena employment files or records about who rented a beach house, or compel witnesses to answer questions.

Yet the FBI could initiate further action on its own if agents uncover evidence of criminal activity or if someone is caught lying to investigators, the former official said.

The inquiry was ordered a day after a tumultuous Senate hearing in which Kavanaugh fiercely and tearfully denied the claims by Ford, a California college professor, that he had sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school.

The FBI referred all questions about the investigation to the White House.

“As the Senate has requested, this update must be limited in scope and completed in less than one week,” Trump said in a statement on Friday.

Kavanaugh’s Statement

Kavanaugh, in a statement released by the White House, said, “Throughout this process, I’ve been interviewed by the FBI, I’ve done a number of ‘background’ calls directly with the Senate, and yesterday, I answered questions under oath about every topic the Senators and their counsel asked me. I’ve done everything they have requested and will continue to cooperate.”

Other senators backed Flake’s request, including Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, as well as Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has been viewed as a possible vote for Kavanaugh.

Democrats had repeatedly demanded an FBI investigation since Ford’s allegation surfaced a few weeks ago, and they hammered at the issue throughout Thursday’s hearing.

Republicans who support Kavanaugh said there was no corroborating evidence for Ford’s allegation. Democrats pointed to the lack of an impartial investigation and the committee’s refusal to call witnesses who might be able to back up her claim, or to seek testimony from the two other women who accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.

Separately, former Kavanaugh classmate Mark Judge -- who Ford says witnessed and encouraged the attack -- told the committee in a letter he would cooperate with any law enforcement agency that investigates “confidentially.”

He also “categorically” denied sexual misconduct claims against him and Kavanaugh made by another accuser, Julie Swetnick. Judge had previously notified the Judiciary Committee that he didn’t want to testify in public.

Another woman, Deborah Ramirez of Colorado, claims Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a drunken party when they were freshmen at Yale.

First Published: Sep 29, 2018 17:07 IST