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Senate Democrats suggest past FBI background checks on Kavanaugh include evidence of inappropriate behavior

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 10/3/2018 John Wagner, Seung Min Kim

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Senate Democrats suggested in a new letter Wednesday to the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that past FBI background checks on Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh include evidence of inappropriate behavior — claims quickly refuted by Republicans as “baseless innuendo.”

The letter — signed by eight of the 10 Democrats on the committee — provides no specifics to back up the Democrats’ assertion that Kavanaugh’s past background checks included such evidence. But the letter challenged the accuracy of a tweet from the committee’s Republican staff on Tuesday that read: “Nowhere in any of these six FBI reports, which the committee has reviewed on a bipartisan basis, was there ever a whiff of ANY issue — at all — related in any way to inappropriate sexual behavior or alcohol abuse.”

The Democrats said the information in the tweet is “not accurate,” urging the GOP to correct them.

“It is troubling that the committee majority has characterized information from Judge Kavanaugh’s confidential background investigation on Twitter, as that information is confidential and not subject to public release,” Democrats, led by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), wrote to the committee’s chairman, Charles E. Grassley. “If the committee majority is going to violate that confidentiality and characterize this background investigation publicly, you must at least be honest about it.

The two committee Democrats who did not sign the letter were Sens. Christopher A. Coons (Del.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.).

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Grassley’s staff responded on Twitter Wednesday evening that “nothing in the tweet is inaccurate or misleading.”

“The committee stands by its statement, which is completely truthful,” the committee Republicans said. “More baseless innuendo and more false smears from Senate Democrats.”

Earlier, a trio of Republican senators crucial to Kavanaugh’s confirmation prospects criticized President Trump for mocking the account of a woman who has accused his Supreme Court nominee of sexual assault decades ago.

In separate interviews, Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — all considered swing votes on Kavanaugh — took issue with comments the president made the night before at a political rally in Mississippi that drew laughs from his supporters.

“There’s no time and no place for remarks like that,” Flake (R-Ariz.) said on NBC’s “Today” show. “To discuss something this sensitive at a political rally is just not right. It’s just not right. I wish he hadn’t done it . . . It’s kind of appalling.”

Flake, the Judiciary Committee member who pushed to delay the vote on Kavanaugh so the FBI could investigate, later told The Washington Post that Trump’s comments would not factor into his thinking on the nomination.

“You can’t take it out on other people, the president’s insensitive remarks,” he said.

The impact on Collins and Murkowski was less clear.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. © Tom Williams/AP Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. About two hours after Flake’s appearance, Collins also took exception to Trump’s remarks, telling reporters, “The president’s comments were just plain wrong.” She did not answer a question about whether the comments could affect how she votes on Kavanaugh.

Speaking to reporters early Wednesday afternoon, Murkowski said: “I thought the president’s comments yesterday mocking Dr. Ford were wholly inappropriate and in my view unacceptable.”

Asked whether the comments would affect her vote, she said: “I am taking everything into account.”

In his most direct attack on Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault while both were teenagers in Maryland, Trump sought Tuesday night to highlight holes in the account Ford gave in sworn testimony to the Judiciary Committee last week.

“ ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ ‘Upstairs? Downstairs? Where was it?’ ‘I don’t know. But I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember,’ ” Trump said of Ford, as he impersonated her on stage.

“ ‘I don’t remember,’ ” he said repeatedly, apparently mocking her testimony.

Ford has said that the incident happened in an upstairs room at a gathering of teenagers and that she is “100 percent” certain it was Kavanaugh who assaulted her, although she has acknowledged that her memories of other details of the evening remain unclear.

The day after Ford’s testimony, Trump said she was “very compelling” and a “very credible witness.”

His comments at Tuesday’s rally prompted a debate that played out on cable television and elsewhere over whether he had hurt his nominee’s chances.

Among those who weighed in was Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who said everything Trump had said was factual, but took issue with his tone.

“I would tell him, ‘Knock it off, you’re not helping,’ ” Graham said during an appearance at the Atlantic Festival.

“This is what you get when you go through a trailer park with a $100 bill,” Graham added, paraphrasing an infamous line once used by James Carville, a former campaign strategist for President Bill Clinton, to refer to a Clinton accuser.

Besides Flake, Collins and Murkowski, Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) also have yet to announce how they will vote.

Trump highlighted another part of the rally Wednesday morning, distributing a clip on Twitter in which he attacks Democrats for opposing his nominee, saying “all they really know how to do is obstruct, resist, demolish, destroy and delay.”

In a later tweet, he wrote that, based on what he’s heard at recent rallies, “VOTERS ARE REALLY ANGRY AT THE VICIOUS AND DESPICABLE WAY DEMOCRATS ARE TREATING BRETT KAVANAUGH! He and his wonderful family deserve much better.”

During a floor speech Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reiterated his vow to hold votes this week on Kavanaugh’s nomination, saying: “It’s time to put this embarrassing spectacle behind us.”

He also took aim at Democrats, who have suggested that Friday might be too soon to vote and who have asked for a full briefing by FBI agents of their findings about accusations against Kavanaugh. McConnell characterized those requests as part of an ongoing effort “to move the goal posts” on Kavanaugh’s nomination by senators bent on delay.

“If my friends across the aisle had their way, the goal posts on Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination would be in another time zone,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) fired back in remarks after McConnell, saying the week-long delay to the let the FBI investigate came at the request of Republican senators who weren’t prepared to vote for Kavanaugh’s nomination.

“Man up and say it’s your decision, not ours,” Schumer said.

He also criticized Trump, calling the president’s comments at the Mississippi rally “beneath the office of the president and beneath common decency.” Schumer said Trump owes Ford an apology.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a potential 2020 White House contender, had sharp criticism for Trump as well.

“Stop being mean,” she said at the Atlantic Festival when asked about Trump’s remarks in Mississippi. She said that the president’s ridiculing of Ford showed that he was “completely without any level of empathy about what her experience was.”

“He clearly watched her testimony. So what was the purpose of saying that?” Harris asked. “Doing it was for what purpose? I can’t understand it, and I’m embarrassed that the president of the United States would do that to this woman.”

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway defended her boss during a Wednesday morning television appearance.

“The president is pointing out factual inconsistencies by Ford’s own testimony,” Conway said on Fox News. “There are gaps in her memory. There are facts she cannot remember.”

At a White House briefing later in the day, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed those arguments and asserted a double standard when it comes to questioning the testimony of Ford and questioning the testimony of Kavanaugh.

“It wasn’t anything but the president stating facts,” Sanders said of Trump.

She declined to say whether Trump still believes Ford was credible.

Besides Ford, two other women have publicly accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct while he was in high school or college.

Some Democrats have voiced concerns about the scope of the FBI probe, the extent to which the White House is limiting it and whether a week is long enough to conduct a thorough investigation.

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), another Judiciary Committee member, said he is concerned by reports that the investigation could wrap up as soon as Wednesday.

“That would concern me,” said Coons, who appeared alongside Flake on NBC. “I hope the FBI has been allowed to follow all the reasonable leads that were before the committee last week, and I know that puts them under a lot of pressure, but they have the resources to do it.”

As a vote nears, Democrats have also sought to highlight concerns about Kavanaugh’s temperament, pointing to moments in last week’s hearing in which he grew testy at senators and was emotional at other points.

During his television appearance, Flake reiterated that he, too, was concerned that Kavanaugh at times was “sharp and more partisan than a lot of us would like to see.”

But Flake said Kavanaugh’s tenure as a federal appeals court judge was also relevant.

“We’ve seen a record that he’s had on the court of collegiality and working with other members,” Flake said.

During his remarks, McConnell said it was completely understandable that Kavanaugh had grown “a little testy” at the hearing.

“I would ask any of my colleagues how would you feel if your reputation had been destroyed in this mudslide,” he said.

Those interviewed by the FBI so far include a second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, who alleges that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her while both were in college.

A third accuser, Julie Swetnick, has yet to be interviewed, according to her attorney, Michael Avenatti.

Swetnick said last week in an affidavit that Kavanaugh was present at a house party in 1982 where she alleges she was the victim of a gang rape, a claim he vehemently denies.

On Tuesday, Avenatti released a written declaration from a second woman whose statements supported Swetnick’s claims. The woman, whose name was redacted in the document Avenatti posted, said she “witnessed firsthand Brett Kavanaugh, together with others, ‘spike’ the ‘punch’ at house parties I attended with Quaaludes and/or grain alcohol.”

Avenatti said in a tweet Wednesday that the unidentified woman “is prepared to meet with the FBI today and disclose multiple facts and witnesses.”

Avenatti, who is considering a 2020 presidential bid as a Democrat, also took aim at Trump on Wednesday for his comments at the rally in Mississippi.

“Regardless of your politics, you should be outraged by the POTUS standing before a crowd and mocking a woman who claims she was sexually assaulted,” Avenatti said on Twitter. “@realDonaldTrump sought applause and laughter at her expense. Call him what he is — a misogynist pig with no respect for women.”

seung-min.kim@washpost.com

john.wagner@washpost.com

Josh Dawsey and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.


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