Donald Trump has directed the FBI to launch a supplemental investigation into the supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, after an extraordinary display of 11th-hour drama at the Senate judiciary committee vote to advance his confirmation on Friday.
Trump said in a statement that the updated investigation into his nominee for America’s highest bench “must be limited in scope” and “completed in less than one week”. However, he later suggested in a tweet that it was only a matter of time before Kavanaugh was appointed.
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 29, 2018
Senate Republicans voted to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination despite a last-minute change of heart by a Republican senator, who broke ranks and called for an FBI investigation into the sexual assault allegations that have roiled the judge’s confirmation process.
Moments before the Senate judiciary committee voted 11-10, along strict party lines, to send Kavanaugh’s nomination to the floor for the full chamber’s consideration, Senator Jeff Flake announced he would support a “limited” FBI investigation and threatened to oppose Kavanaugh if there was no further examination of the allegations against him.
“I think it would be proper to delay the floor vote for up to and not more than one week in order to let the FBI do an investigation,” Flake said at the hearing on Friday.
Following Flake’s insistence, the Senate judiciary committee later said it was formally requesting that the Trump administration instruct the FBI to conduct a supplemental background investigation that would be “limited to current credible allegations against the nominee and must be completed no later than one week from today”.
The decision marks a reversal for the administration, which had argued that Kavanaugh had already been vetted.
The remarkable turnaround came hours after Flake announced his support for Kavanaugh despite dramatic testimony on Thursday that saw the supreme court nominee and Christine Blasey Ford, a California professor who accused him of sexual assault, deliver dueling testimony on Capitol Hill.
Flake, who had been regarded as a crucial swing vote, reversed course after he was confronted by two survivors of sexual assault in an elevator shortly before Friday’s committee vote.
The confrontation with Flake could be seen in TV footage blocking the Arizona senator from closing the elevator door. Through her tears, one woman said she had been a victim of sexual assault, and begged Flake to look her in the eye. She said: “Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me.”
The gripping exchange appeared to have had an impact on Flake, who subsequently sat stone-faced in the committee room in anticipation of the vote. As his Republican colleagues took turns declaring their support for Kavanaugh, Flake abruptly left the room to engage in private discussions with Democrats on the committee.
Nearly an hour of tense, closed-door deliberations followed, pushing the vote past its scheduled time. As members exited and re-entered the room several times, seeking to make sense of what was transpiring behind-the-scenes, Flake finally re-emerged before the committee and voiced support delaying a full Senate vote on Kavanaugh pending a FBI investigation.
“We can have a short pause and make sure the FBI can investigate,” he said.
During Thursday’s hearing, Ford recounted how Kavanaugh attempted to rape her when the two were teenagers in the early 1980s. Kavanaugh vehemently denied the charge from Ford, who testified to lawmakers under oath that she was “100%” sure he assaulted her.
According to her lawyer, Ford welcomed the FBI investigation, but said “no artificial limits as to time or scope should be imposed on it”.
Kavanaugh said he had done “everything” the Senate had asked of him and “will continue to cooperate.”
Thursday’s emotionally charged hearing underscored not only the potential ramifications of sending Kavanaugh to the supreme court, where he would play a role in shaping decades’ worth of policy, but also the societal impact of the #MeToo movement and recourse for victims of sexual assault.
It remains unclear if Republicans possess the necessary votes from the full chamber to confirm Kavanaugh. With a narrow 51-49 seat majority in the Senate, Republicans can afford to lose just one vote.
Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two of the Senate’s prominent Republican women, have remained undecided on Kavanaugh.Both senators on Friday afternoon expressed support for a limited FBI investigation following the committee’s announcement that it would seek one.
Women confront Sen. Jeff Flake after he says he'll vote yes to Kavanuagh: “That’s what you’re telling all women in America, that they don’t matter. They should just keep it to themselves because if they have told the truth you’re just going to help that man to power anyway.” pic.twitter.com/T7fSpyT69E
— CNN (@CNN) September 28, 2018
Speaking to reporters earlier on Friday, Trump said he had not considered an alternative to Kavanaugh. But he did not escalate pressure on Senate Republicans to rally behind his nominee, stating: “They have to do what they think is right.”
Also earlier in the day, Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, had dismissed calls for a new FBI investigation, telling reporters Kavanaugh had already “been through six separate background investigations by the FBI”.
Kavanaugh is a darling of the conservative right in America but his path to the supreme court has been hit by a series of sexual assault allegations from three women.
Democrats have called for Kavanaugh to withdraw as more accusers have come forward. Following Kavanaugh’s fiery testimony on Thursday, several Democrats voiced concerns over his suitability for the historically independent supreme court.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the judiciary committee’s top Democrat, said the judge had been “aggressive and belligerent”.
“I have never seen someone who wanted to be elevated to the highest court in our country behave in that manner,” she said.
Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, lamented the committee was no longer independent.
He said: “We are an arm, and a very weak arm, of the Trump White House.”
Red-state Democrats facing tough re-election battles in November, some of whom crossed over the aisle last year to confirm Trump’s other supreme court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, also appeared to feel the heat. At least two of them, Senators Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, announced they would vote against Kavanaugh on Friday.
“As I have made clear before, sexual assault has no place in our society,” Donnelly said in a statement.
“When it does occur, we should listen to the survivors and work to ensure it never happens again. That should not be a partisan issue.”
Joe Manchin, a vulnerable Democrat up for re-election in West Virginia, endorsed Flake’s position.
Meanwhile, there were signs the remarkable testimony had registered negatively with at least two organizations whose endorsement Kavanaugh had earlier received.
The American Bar Association, which previously gave Kavanaugh its highest rating of “well qualified”, asked the Senate judiciary committee and the full Senate to delay the vote until the FBI could do a full background check.