WASHINGTON — Senate Republican leaders agreed Friday to reopen the FBI background investigation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh after two key Republicans suggested they would not vote to confirm him to the Supreme Court without additional information on his alleged sexual misconduct while he was a teenager.
The announcement followed a vote along party lines by the Senate Judiciary Committee to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination, after securing a vote from Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who asked for a delay of up to a week before the full Senate decides the judge’s fate.
Another senator considered a swing vote on the floor, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she agrees with Flake, leaving GOP leaders little choice but to slow down the process, given their slim 51-40 margin in the chamber.
Republican leaders said they still plan to move ahead with a procedural vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination on Saturday but will postpone a final vote on his confirmation that they had hoped would take place Tuesday.
The 11-to-10 committee vote came a day after hearing riveting testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused President Donald Trump’s nominee of sexual assault at a house party in Maryland in the early 1980s.
Following Flake’s announcement, both Murkowski and Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., indicated that they support his call for a delay.
“The American people have been pulled apart by this entire spectacle and we need to take time to address these claims independently, so that our country can have confidence in the outcome of this vote,” Manchin said in a statement. “It is what is right and fair for Dr. Ford, Judge Kavanaugh, and the American people.”
While the timing of the floor vote is up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he would advocate for Flake’s request.
“This is all a gentlemen’s and women’s agreement,” Grassley said after the committee vote.
Speaking to reporters at the White House after the committee vote, Trump said he would defer to Senate leaders on how to proceed with his nominee. “Whatever they think is necessary is okay,” Trump said. “They have to do what they think is right.”
He continued to stand by Kavanaugh, saying he had not thought “even a little bit” about a replacement but also said he found Ford a “credible witness.”
The move by Flake, a frequent Trump critic who is retiring from the Senate after this year, was cheered by several Democrats, including Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a fellow member of the Judiciary Committee.
“He and I don’t share a lot of political views but we share a deep concern for the health of this institution and what it means to the rest of the world and the country,” said Coons, who huddled with Flake before he announced his position.
Flake is “someone who is willing to take a real political risk and upset many in his party by asking for a pause,” Coons said.
As Kavanaugh’s nomination heads to the floor, his prospects remain unclear in the full Senate.
Two other senators considered swing votes – Susan Collins of Maine and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota – remained silent about their intentions Friday.
Meanwhile, another red-state Democrat, Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., announced Friday that he would oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination. Republicans had been courting Donnelly, one of three Democrats, along with Manchin and Heitkamp, who supported previous Trump Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
“I have deep reservations about Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to this lifetime position and … we have been unable to get all the information necessary regarding this nomination, despite my best efforts,” Donnelly said in a statement. “Only 113 people have ever served on the Supreme Court, and I believe that we must do our level best to protect its sanctity.”
Mark Judge, a friend and high school classmate of Kavanaugh, is likely to be a prominent figure in any inquiry by the FBI. Ford claims he was present when Kavanaugh allegedly attacked her. Another Kavanaugh accuser also alleges that Judge and Kavanaugh sought on multiple occasions in high school to drug inebriated girls for nonconsensual sex with multiple boys – an accusation Kavanaugh has strongly denied.
“If the FBI or any law enforcement agency requests Mr. Judge’s cooperation, he will answer any and all questions posed to him,” Judge’s lawyer Barbara Van Gelder said.
Judge met with his lawyer Friday morning in Washington, after returning from being holed up in a Bethany Beach, Delaware, home. The Washington Post found him there on Monday, where his lawyer said he had fled to try to avoid an avalanche of press requests and criticism.
Judge told the Senate Judiciary Committee Friday he either does not recall or flatly rejects the allegations about his and Kavanaugh’s behavior in high school.
At the committee vote neared Friday, senators on both sides of the aisle took turns giving their reasons for supporting or opposing Kavanaugh, many in impassioned terms.
“He does not have the veracity nor temperament for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in our nation,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said of Kavanaugh. “And no such nominee should be confirmed in the face of such serious, credible and unresolved allegations of sexual assault.”
“I’ve never heard a more compelling defense of one’s honor and integrity,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., countered, referring to Kavanaugh’s performance at Thursday’s hearing.
Graham declared that judicial confirmations would now be starkly different going forward, noting the “process before Kavanaugh, and the process after Kavanaugh.”
“I can say about Ms. Ford, I feel sorry for her, and I do believe something happened to her, and I don’t know when and where,” Graham said. “But I don’t believe it was Brett Kavanaugh.”
Shortly after the Judiciary Committee convened Friday, the panel voted down a motion on party lines by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to subpoena Judge, who had said he does not want to be part of a committee hearing.
The committee then voted, again along party lines, to decide on Kavanaugh’s nomination at 1:30 p.m. The votes prompted outrage from Democrats.
“This is just totally ridiculous. What a railroad job,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii.
Several Senate Democrats – including Blumenthal, Hirono, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island – walked out in protest.
Underscoring the acrimony surrounding Friday’s proceedings, a dozen House Democratic women who gathered to watch the Judiciary Committee stood up in the room in protest.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., later told reporters that she thinks Trump “is trying to break the MeToo movement” with his continued support for Kavanaugh.
Meanwhile, shortly after Flake announced his support for Kavanaugh, two women tearfully and loudly confronted the Arizona senator in an elevator, telling him that he was dismissing the pain of sexual assault survivors.
“What you are doing is allowing someone who actually violated a woman to sit in the Supreme Court,” one woman shouted during a live CNN broadcast as Flake was making his way to the Judiciary Committee meeting. “This is horrible. You have children in your family. Think about them.”
Flake listened quietly, then told the women: “Thank you.”
Before the committee meeting, White House officials fanned out across morning television shows to tout Kavanaugh’s fiery performance in Thursday’s hearing and press the Senate to vote.
“I think he was incredibly powerful and very clear,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of Kavanaugh during an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
She suggested that Ford was mistaken about her attacker and said Kavanaugh has “been unequivocal since Day One that this did not take place by him.”
During a television appearance Friday morning before the committee vote, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he is “optimistic we’ll confirm the judge.”
Asked about Republican holdouts on “Fox & Friends,” Cornyn said, “They have not publicly committed, but we’ve been engaging in personal texts, conversations, face-to-face visits. It’s the norm for how thing happen here . . . I respect their right to make their own announcement, which I’m sure they’ll do in due course.”
The votes of several red-state Democrats have also been in play.
Late Thursday, one of them, Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, said in a tweet that he would vote no if the chamber presses ahead with consideration of Kavanaugh the day after hearing from Ford, whom Jones said he found “credible & courageous.”
With her voice shaking at times, Ford described in stark detail Thursday being pinned on a bed at a house party by a drunken Kavanaugh, who she said groped her, tried to take off her clothes and put his hand over her mouth to stifle her screams. She said she was “100 percent” certain that Kavanaugh was her attacker.
In his tweet, Jones repeated a call for the Senate to postpone the vote and hear from Judge, who Ford said was in the room when Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted her in 1982.
“What message will we send to our daughters & sons, let alone sexual assault victims?” Jones said in his tweet. “The message I will send is this – I vote no. #RightSideofHistory”
Late Thursday, the American Bar Association, which had previously rated Kavanaugh “well-qualified” for the Supreme Court, called on the Judiciary Committee to halt the confirmation vote, saying it should not move forward until an FBI investigation into the sexual assault allegations against him can be completed.
During her appearance on ABC, Sanders suggested that was unnecessary, saying the FBI has conducted six previous background checks on Kavanaugh for federal positions.
“These allegations took place long before any of those background checks would have taken place,” she said, adding that senators had asked questions Thursday similar to what the FBI would ask if it reopened its process.
Rachel Mitchell, the outside counsel hired by Republicans to question Ford, told GOP senators in a closed-door meeting Thursday night that she would not have prosecuted the matter because there was no corroborating evidence, according to two GOP sources familiar with her presentation. She also told the senators that Ford was a compelling witness who had clearly suffered trauma.
Mitchell, a registered Republican, has not commented about the case. Republicans have rebuffed repeated requests from Democrats to call other witnesses who might have corroborated Ford’s account and also rejected Democratic calls for an FBI investigation.
Mitchell’s comments reassured Republicans who have been wavering about the nomination, according to GOP sources who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
During Thursday’s hearing, Kavanaugh angrily assailed Democrats for pushing what he said were false charges to “blow me up and take me down.”
The 53-year-old federal judge was often tearful and paused for gulps of water as he spoke about the toll that the allegations by Ford and two other women have taken on his wife, his children, his parents and his friends.
“This has destroyed my family and my good name,” he said, adding: “This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election.”
It remained unclear whether an FBI review would include two other Kavanaugh accusers.
Deborah Ramirez, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale University, told the New Yorker magazine that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party when they were both first-year students.
Julie Swetnick, a Washington resident, said in a declaration that Kavanaugh was physically abusive toward girls in high school and present at a house party in 1982 where she says she was the victim of a “gang” rape. She is being represented by Michael Avenatti, whose clients also include Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actress who was paid to remain silent about an alleged decade-old affair with Trump.
Washington Post writers Carol D. Leonnig, Sean Sullivan, Mike DeBonis, Paul Kane, Robert Barnes and Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.
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