In a week that began mired in uncertainty – for President Donald Trump, for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, for congressional Republicans, for the FBI – the GOP still had the stolid steadiness of Mitch McConnell to lean on.
“The time for endless delay and obstruction has come to a close,” the Senate majority leader said Monday afternoon. “Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination is out of committee. We’re considering it here on the floor. And, Mr. President, we’ll be voting this week.”
McConnell’s vow that, come hell or high water, the Senate would render its judgment on Kavanaugh’s nomination was a stark contrast to the swirl of unknowns surrounding the investigation into Kavanaugh’s background launched somewhat haphazardly on Friday.
The confusion centered on what, exactly, the FBI was tasked by the White House with investigating. Was the mandate solely to look into claims made by two women – Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez – that Kavanaugh had engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior with each of them during high school and college, respectively? Was Kavanaugh’s drinking – and his insistence in last week’s testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he never blacked out or passed out – fair game? What about the allegations of women other than Ford or Ramirez – most notably Julie Swetnick, who alleged that she had been at parties with Kavanaugh in the early 1980s in which he engaged in excessive drinking and inappropriate sexual behavior?
The initial White House statement shed very little light on the matter. “I’ve ordered the FBI to conduct a supplemental investigation to update Judge Kavanaugh’s file,” Trump said. “As the Senate has requested, this update must be limited in scope and completed in less than one week.”
On Monday, the President – as he so often does – seemed to make things murkier rather than provide clarity. “I want the FBI – this is now their seventh investigation – I want them to do a very comprehensive investigation,” Trump said in the Rose Garden. “Whatever that means according to the senators and the Republicans and the Republican majority, I want them to do that.” Trump added, among other things, that a) he would be OK with the FBI interviewing Kavanaugh b) it would be fine with him if the FBI talked to Swetnick and c) he was surprised how forthcoming Kavanaugh has been about how “he’s had a little bit of difficulty” with drinking. (Kavanaugh said nothing of the sort.)
Which leaves us where, exactly?
No one seemed to know. But what was readily apparent was that this one-week delay – occasioned by Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s change of heart just before Friday’s Judiciary Committee vote on Kavanaugh – had done nothing to alleviate the tribalism and partisan nastiness coursing through Washington.
“If you listen carefully, you can practically hear the sounds of the Democrats moving the goalposts,” said McConnell.
“For too long Republicans have rushed this process forward and likely would have rushed to a final vote if not for the prudent bipartisan efforts of those senators to demand a full FBI investigation,” retorted McConnell’s Democratic counterpart, Sen. Chuck Schumer.
What all of this spin masks is that almost everyone knows less than they are letting on. The FBI is investigating. They have already spoken to Mark Judge, a friend of Kavanaugh’s from high school who Ford said was in the room when she says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her. Investigators plan to speak to Judge again, according to his lawyer. Leland Keyser, a friend of Ford’s, has also been interviewed. Ditto Patrick J. Smyth, another Kavanaugh friend who Ford has mentioned in her testimony. The FBI has also talked to Ramirez, although Ford herself as of Monday night had not been contacted by the FBI, according to her lawyer Debra Katz.
No one knows what those people told the FBI and if what they said differs in any meaningful way from what they have said publicly. There’s little reporting on other people who the FBI has either contacted or interviewed in association with its expanded background probe of Kavanaugh.
On Monday night, The New York Times reported that Kavanaugh was accused of starting a bar fight while he was a student at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. A man named Dom Cozzolino said Kavanaugh had thrown ice on him and Kavanaugh’s friend had thrown a glass that hit him in the ear, according to according to a 1985 police report obtained by CNN from the New Haven, Connecticut, police department.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders responded on Twitter, criticizing Times reporter Emily Bazelon and linking to a tweet she sent in July that was critical of Kavanaugh. “Democrats desperately attack Judge Kavanaugh for throwing ice during college. What motivated New York Times reporter to write this ridiculous story? Throwing ice 33 years ago, or her opinion of Judge Kavanaugh in July?” Sanders said.
One thing we do know for sure is this: What the White House, McConnell and Schumer think of all of this matters far less than what Flake, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska think. That group of three Republicans is the sole reason why Trump ordered the FBI to conduct this investigation because, without their votes, the Kavanaugh nomination fails. Given the reporting by CNN’s Dana Bash that the trio would like to remain unified when it comes to the next steps on Kavanaugh, they continue to hold all the cards. The opinions of virtually everyone else in the country on whether the FBI investigation is too much or not enough and is asking the right people the right questions pale in comparison with how Flake, Murkowski and Collins view it.
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And they’re not saying much.
“Let me just say that based on an extensive conversation that I’ve had with the White House counsel that I’m confident that the FBI is doing a thorough investigation and that it will be helpful to us as we make our decision,” Collins said late Monday. Murkowski offered even less, telling reporters only that “it’s incumbent on all of us to listen to the information when it comes out.”
Flake, speaking at an event in Boston, said he had engaged in recent conversations to ensure that “any current credible allegation that has been made is fully investigated.” He added: “It does no good to have an investigation that just gives us more cover, for example,” and that “we actually need to find out what we can find out.”
The clock is ticking. The spinners are spinning. The FBI is investigating. And Flake, Collins and Murkowski are commiserating. Stay tuned.