AP

Trump bows to pressure, agrees to FBI probe of Kavanaugh

September 29, 2018 - 12:50 pm
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WASHINGTON (1010 WINS/AP) — Reversing course, President Donald Trump bowed to Democrats' demands Friday for a deeper FBI investigation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh after Republican Sen. Jeff Flake balked at voting for confirmation without it — a sudden turn that left Senate approval newly uncertain amid allegations of sexual assault.

Kavanaugh's nomination had appeared back on track earlier Friday when he cleared a key hurdle at the Senate Judiciary Committee. But that advance came with an asterisk. Flake indicated he would take the next steps — leading to full Senate approval — only after the further background probe, and there were suggestions that other moderate Republicans might join his revolt.

The abrupt developments gave senators, the White House and millions of Americans following the drama at home hardly a chance to catch their breath after Thursday's emotional Senate hearing featuring Kavanaugh angrily defending himself and accuser Christine Blasey Ford determinedly insisting he assaulted her when they were teens.

Emotions were still running high Friday, and protesters confronted senators in the halls.

At the last minute, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, said he could not promise to vote for Kavanaugh on the Senate floor and called for a delay of up to a week for a further investigation.

Trump later approved the FBI investigation. "I’ve ordered the FBI to conduct a supplemental investigation to update Judge Kavanaugh’s file," the president said in a statement. "As the Senate has requested, this update must be limited in scope and completed in less than one week.”

In a statement released later in the afternoon, Kavanaugh 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."

The development came after an extraordinary and emotional day of testimony where he denied accusations of sexual assault as "unequivocally" false. His accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, testified that she was "100 percent" certain Kavanaugh attacked her.

The remarkable testimony appears to have only sharpened the partisan divide over President Donald Trump's nominee. Republicans praised Ford's bravery in coming forward, but many of them said her account won't affect their support for Kavanaugh.

President Donald Trump also made clear that he was sticking by his nominee. "His testimony was powerful, honest and riveting," he tweeted. "The Senate must vote!"

The situation Friday morning, remained highly contentious as Democrats demanded more witnesses be subpoenaed over the attempted rape allegations by Ford. That request was shot down, and a vote was scheduled for 1:30, prompting several Democrats on the committee to walk out of the hearing.

"Moments ago I walked out of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Kavanaugh. This hearing is a sham and Dr. Ford and the American people deserve better," Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) said.

Harris was joined by Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Democrats say Republicans are rushing the confirmation.

"I strongly object! What a railroad job! No, no, no!," Hirono yelled.

Senator Dianne Feinstein questioned Kavanaugh's temperament during Thursday's hearing.

"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," she said.

Before the hearing got underway Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) was confronted by protestors.

"Look at me and tell me that it doesn't matter what happened to me, that you'll let people like that go into the highest court in the land and tell everyone what they can do to their bodies," a woman said.

Flake has said that he will vote to confirm Kavanaugh.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, where the initial vote on Kavanaugh will be held, is narrowly split with an 11-10 Republican majority. Democrats are expected to oppose the nominee. But even if the panel deadlocks on whether to recommend the judge for confirmation, the full Senate could start taking procedural votes Saturday on Kavanaugh, setting up a final vote as soon as Tuesday.

"We're going to move forward," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as he exited a private late night strategy session with Republican senators. "The committee is going to vote."

The American Bar Association urged the Judiciary committee and the full Senate to slow down on the vote until the FBI has time to do a full background check on the assault claims.

"We make this request because of the ABA's respect for the rule of law and due process under law," the ABA letter to committee leadership said. "Each appointment to our nation's highest court (as with all others) is simply too important to rush to a vote."

Of the 11 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, only the vote of GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona remains in doubt. The retiring senator, who has stayed quiet in recent days, told reporters late Thursday, "this isn't easy."

Flake said the marathon hearing left him "with as much doubt as certainty." He said, "We just do the best we can."

At the daylong session Thursday, Ford and Kavanaugh both said the event and the public controversy that has erupted 36 years later had altered their lives forever and for the worse — perhaps the only thing they agreed on during a long day of testimony that was a study in contrasts of tone as well as substance.

Coming forward publicly for the first time, Ford, a California psychology professor, quietly told the nation and the Senate Judiciary Committee her long-held secret of the alleged assault in locked room at a gathering of friends when she was just 15. The memory — and Kavanaugh's laughter during the act — was "locked" in her brain, she said: "100 percent." Hours later, Kavanaugh angrily denied it, alternating a loud, defiant tone with near tears as he addressed the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"You have replaced 'advice and consent' with 'search and destroy," he said, referring to the Constitution's charge to senators' duties in confirming high officials.

Repeatedly Democrats asked Kavanaugh to call for an FBI investigation into the claims. He did not.

"I welcome whatever the committee wants to do," he said.

Republicans are reluctant for several reasons, including the likelihood that further investigations could push a vote past the November elections that may switch Senate control back to the Democrats and make consideration of any Trump nominee more difficult.

Across more than 10 hours, the senators heard from only the two witnesses. Ford delivered her testimony with steady, deliberate certitude. She admitted gaps in her memory as she choked back tears and said she "believed he was going to rape me." Kavanaugh's entered the hearing room fuming and ready to fight, as he angrily denied the charges from Ford and other women accusing him of misconduct, barked back at senators and dismissed some questions with a flippant "whatever."

"You may defeat me in the final vote, but you'll never get me to quit, never," he said.

Trump nominated the conservative jurist in what was supposed to be an election year capstone to the GOP agenda, locking in the court's majority for years to come. Instead the nomination that Republicans were rushing for a vote now hangs precariously after one of the most emotionally charged hearings Capitol Hill has ever seen. Coming amid a national reckoning over sexual misconduct at the top of powerful institutions, it exposed continued divisions over justice, fairness and who should be believed. And coming weeks before elections, it ensured that debate would play into the fight for control of Congress.

The day opened with Ford, now a 51-year-old college professor in California, raising her right hand to swear under oath about the allegations she said she never expected to share publicly until they leaked in the media two weeks ago and reporters started staking her out at home and at work in California.

Wearing a blue suit as Anita Hill did more two decades ago when she testified about sexual misconduct by Clarence Thomas, the mom of two testified before a committee with only male senators on the Republican side.

The psychology professor described what she says was a harrowing assault in the summer of 1982: How an inebriated Kavanaugh and another teen, Mark Judge, locked her in a room at a house party as Kavanaugh was grinding and groping her. She said he put his hand over her mouth to muffle her screams. "I believed he was going to rape me," she testified, referring to Kavanaugh.

Judge has said he does not recall the incident and he reiterated that point in a letter to the committee released late Thursday.

When the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, asked how she could be sure that Kavanaugh was the attacker, Ford said, "The same way I'm sure I'm talking to you right now." Later, she told Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that her certainty was "100 percent."

Asked by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., for her strongest memory of the alleged incident, Ford, said it was the two boys' laughter.

"Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter," said Ford, who is a research psychologist, "the uproarious laughter between the two."

Republican strategists were privately hand-wringing after Ford's testimony. The GOP special counsel Rachel Mitchell, a Phoenix sex crimes prosecutor, who Republicans had hired to avoid the optics of their all-male line up questioning Ford, left Republicans disappointed.

Mitchell's attempt to draw out a counter-narrative was disrupted by the panel's decision to allow alternating five-minute rounds of questions from Democratic senators.

During a lunch break, even typically talkative GOP senators on the panel were without words.

John Kennedy of Louisiana said he had no comment. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said he was "just listening."

Then Kavanaugh strode into the committee room, arranged his nameplate just so, and with anger on his face started to testify with a statement he said he had shown only one other person. Almost immediately he choked up.

"My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed," he said.

He lashed out over the time it took the committee to convene the hearing after Ford's allegations emerged, singling out the Democrats for "unleashing" forces against him.

"This confirmation process has become a national disgrace," he said. He mocked Ford's allegations — and several others since — that have accused him of sexual impropriety. He scolded the senators saying their advice-and-consent role had become "search and destroy."

Even if senators turn vote down his confirmation, he said, "you'll never get me to quit."

Kavanaugh, who has two daughters, said one of his girls said they should "pray for the woman" making the allegations against him, referring to Ford. "That's a lot of wisdom from a 10-year-old," he said chocking up. "We mean no ill will."

The judge repeatedly refused to answer senators' questions about the hard-party atmosphere that has been described from his peer group at Georgetown Prep and Yale, treating them dismissively.

"Sometimes I had too many beers," he acknowledged. "I liked beer. I still like beer. But I never drank beer to the point of blacking out, and I never sexually assaulted anyone. "

When Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., pressed if he ever drank so much he blacked out, he replied, "Have you?" After a break in the proceedings, he came back and apologized to Klobuchar. She said her father was an alcoholic.

Behind him in the audience as he testified, his wife Ashley sat, looking stricken.

Republicans who had been scheduled to vote as soon as Friday at the committee — and early next week in the full Senate — alternated between their own anger and frustration at the allegations and the process.

"You're right to be angry," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, his voice rising in anger, called the hearing the "most unethical sham since I've been in politics."