WASHINGTON — Republican Senate leaders delayed the final vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh for a week to allow the FBI to investigate sexual misconduct allegations against him — in response to Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s surprise last-minute request.
The decision to put off the full Senate vote in one of the most extraordinary and bitterly divided confirmation processes came after the retiring Arizona senator demanded the postponement in exchange for joining other Republicans on the Judiciary Committee in an 11-10 vote to approve and send Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Senate floor.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signed off on the latest postponement after a meeting in his Capitol Building office. Soon after, President Donald Trump, who had refused to order the FBI to probe the sexual assault accusations that became public a week ago, switched course.
“I’ve ordered the FBI to conduct a supplemental investigation to update Judge Kavanaugh’s file,” Trump said in a statement. “As the Senate has requested, this update must be limited in scope and completed in less than one week.”
Flake, a Trump critic, earlier had delayed the fast track that top Republicans planned to put Kavanaugh on the court over Democrats’ objections and obstructions for the special hearing Thursday to allow Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford to testify.
Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge — identified by Ford as being in a bedroom when Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, tried to disrobe her and muffled her cries for help — agreed through his lawyer to answer FBI questions in a confidential setting.
Kavanaugh, 53, who resisted Democrats’ pleas to endorse a new FBI probe at the special hearing Thursday, complaining more accusations likely would arise and that every day would seem like “an eternity,” agreed to cooperate.
“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,” he said in a statement released by the White House.
“I’ve done everything they have requested and will continue to cooperate,” he said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Judiciary Committee chairman, requested that the Trump administration instruct the FBI to conduct a supplemental background investigation limited to “current credible allegations” to be completed in a week.
Under the proposal, the FBI would probe the sexual assault claims aired for the first time in public Thursday by Ford, 51, a university professor, who alleged that when they were in high school in 1982 Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a small party in a suburban Washington house.
But it wasn’t clear if the investigation would also include recent accusations against Kavanaugh by Deborah Ramirez, who said he exposed himself to her at a Yale University party, and Julie Swetnick, who has accused him of being involved in drugging and allowing women to be gang-raped.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a committee member, expressed concern about the thoroughness of the FBI investigation.
“This FBI investigation has to be real, and penetrating, so that the truth and facts and evidence are all uncovered,” he said. “This FBI investigation cannot be a show or a charade.”
Agreement on delaying the floor vote came at the end of a heated committee meeting that some Democrats had earlier walked out of to protest what looked to be the next step in McConnell’s plan to “plow through” for a vote to confirm Kavanaugh in the next few days.
“We can have a short pause and make sure the FBI can investigate. Some of us could make a request to the White House to ask the FBI to investigate,” said Flake, who midway through the meeting had left the room and begun negotiations on the proposal with Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) and others on both sides.
Flake made the proposal after a protester who said she was sexually assaulted had confronted him in an elevator after he released a statement early Friday saying he would vote in committee to approve Kavanaugh’s nomination. “You’re telling me that my assault doesn’t matter,” the woman said in a moment captured on CNN.
“Thank you,” Flake said. “I need to get to the hearing. You will hear more from me.”
Flake picked up quick backing for the delay from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). That meant that with the likely support of all Democrats there would be enough votes to filibuster the nomination vote.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) did not comment on the development. But the delay for an FBI probe would represent a victory for Schumer, whose party has hammered Republicans for not authorizing the FBI to look into the accusations.
During the debate leading up to the vote Friday afternoon, Judiciary Committee members remained bitterly divided over the accusation by Ford. And they traded harsh accusations of politicizing the nomination process.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Friday repeated his charge that Democrats were trying to destroy Kavanaugh to block his nomination.
“If I am chairman [of the committee] next year, I’m going to remember this,” Graham said. “If you want to vet the nominee, you can. If you want to delay things until after the election, you cannot. If you try to destroy somebody, you will not get away with it.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee’s ranking minority member, said, “Dr. Ford provided credible powerful testimony that deserves to be considered and not dismissed as a partisan smear campaign, which it was not.”
But Feinstein said Republicans had already made up their minds before hearing her. “While the Republican strategy is no longer to attack the victim, it is to ignore the victim,” she said.
Democrats and Republicans also disagreed about Kavanaugh’s qualifications, his combative testimony on Thursday and Democrats’ persistent demands that the committee and full Senate votes be delayed until after the FBI investigates allegations by Ford and two other women.
Several Democrats said they were taken aback by Kavanaugh’s aggressiveness and political attacks on them.
“This was not someone who reflected an impartial temperament or the fairness and evenhandedness one would see in a judge. This was someone who was aggressive and belligerent,” Feinstein said.
“He yelled at Democrats for having the temerity to express our frustration for not having access to over 90 percent of his record and said that some Democratic members were ‘an embarrassment,’ ” she said. “He accused Democrats of ‘lying in wait’ and replacing ‘advise and consent with search and destroy.’”
The president of the American Bar Association urged the committee to vote only after the FBI investigates. “We make this request because of the ABA’s respect for the rule of law and due process under law,” ABA President Robert Carlson wrote on Thursday night.
But Grassley initially rejected both those requests, and said that reopening the FBI background investigation would not determine whether Ford’s accusations are true.
After Republicans on Friday flexed their majority at the start of the committee meeting to reject a motion by Blumenthal to subpoena Judge to testify, several Democrats walked out in protest.
Before she left, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said, “What a railroad job.” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) sent out an email calling the meeting a “farce.” Blumenthal left, but later returned. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) stayed to speak, but walked out after his remarks.