A dramatic last-minute demand by Republican Senator Jeff Flake on Friday prompted President Donald Trump to order an FBI investigation into his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh over sexual misconduct allegations that have riveted the country and imperilled his confirmation chances.
With tempers flaring on both sides, the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee approved Kavanaugh’s nomination and sent it to the full Senate over Democratic opposition, with Flake providing the decisive vote.
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But Flake, who is retiring from the Senate in January, cast his vote only after asking the panel to request that the Trump administration pursue an FBI probe of the explosive allegations against Kavanaugh and delay a final Senate confirmation vote for up to a week to let the investigation run its course.
Trump granted the request, saying the probe “must be limited in scope and completed in less one week”.
The drama unfolded the day after a jarring and emotional hearing into sexual misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh that gripped the country, with Christine Blasey Ford, a university professor, accusing him of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers. Kavanaugh denied the accusation.
“This country’s being ripped apart here,” Flake, with a pained look on his face, told his fellow senators. “I think we can have a short pause,” Flake added.
“We ought to do what we can to make sure that we do all due diligence with a nomination this important,” Flake added.
After Trump’s order, Kavanaugh said he would continue to cooperate, but reiterated that he has done “everything they [the committee] have requested”.
“Throughout this process, I’ve been interviewed by the FBI, I’ve done a number of ‘background’ calls directly with the Senate, and yesterday [Thursday], I answered questions under oath about every topic the Senators and their counsel asked of me,” he said in a statement issued by the White House.
A lawyer for Ford welcomed the new investigation, but said limits should not be imposed.
“A thorough FBI investigation is critical to developing all the relevant facts,” Ford’s lawyer Debra Katz said in a statement. “No artificial limits as to time or scope should be imposed on this investigation.”
Drama just before vote
The committee moved to advance the nomination 11-10 on party lines, with Trump’s fellow Republicans voting yes and Democrats voting no.
“All I’ve said to Senator Flake is I would advocate for the position he took but I don’t control that,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the committee.
Just before the scheduled vote in the Judiciary Committee, Flake left the committee room to talk to some Democrats, adding new turmoil to the proceedings. During the delay, senators and aides could be seen in the committee room having hushed conversations.
Earlier in the day Flake, who had previously raised concerns about the allegations against Kavanaugh, said Ford gave “compelling testimony” but Kavanaugh provided “a persuasive response”.
Soon after Flake made his announcement that he would vote for Kavanaugh in the committee, the senator was confronted in an elevator while on his way to the committee meeting by sexual assault survivors.
“That’s what you’re telling all women in America – that they don’t matter, they should just keep it to themselves,” one of the protesters shouted at Flake in an exchange aired by CNN.
“I need to go to my hearing. I’ve issued my statement,” Flake said.
The full Senate must confirm Supreme Court appointments.
Unclear if Republicans have votes to confirm
It remained unclear if Republicans have the votes to confirm Kavanaugh on the Senate floor. Republicans hold a slim Senate 51-49 majority, making the votes of two other so-far undecided Republican moderates crucial: Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins.
Both senators said they supported Flake’s move, as did moderate Democrats Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, who have not yet announced how they will vote on Kavanaugh.
Grassley said he found Thursday’s testimony from both Ford and Kavanaugh “credible”, but added, “There’s simply no reason to deny Judge Kavanaugh a seat on the Supreme Court on the basis of evidence presented to us.”
The timing of the panel’s session gave committee members little time to review Thursday’s emotional testimony from Kavanaugh and Ford, who accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were high school students in 1982. Kavanaugh forcefully denied the accusations and accused Democrats of a “calculated and orchestrated political hit”.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s senior Democrat, called Kavanaugh’s remarks unseemly for a judicial nominee.
“This was someone who was aggressive and belligerent. I have never seen someone who wants to be elevated to the highest court in the country behave in that manner. In stark contrast, the person who testified yesterday and demonstrated a balanced temperament was Dr Ford,” Feinstein said.
Another Democrat, Amy Klobuchar, noted that Grassley had thanked Ford for her bravery but nevertheless failed to back any further investigation.
“Where is the bravery in this room?” Klobuchar asked.
‘Politicise the Supreme Court’
The controversy comes just weeks ahead of the November 6 congressional elections in which Democrats are trying to seize control of Congress from the Republicans.
If confirmed, Kavanaugh would consolidate conservative control of the nation’s highest court and advance Trump’s broad effort to shift the American judiciary to the right.
Democrats said Kavanaugh’s confirmation could taint the Supreme Court, which prides itself on staying above the political fray.
“Voting to advance and ultimately confirm Judge Kavanaugh while he is under this dark cloud of suspicion will forever change the Senate and our nation’s high court. It will politicise the US Supreme Court,” Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said.
The American Bar Association, which earlier endorsed Kavanaugh, and the dean of Yale Law School, which Kavanaugh attended, had also called for an FBI probe.
The committee Republicans also voted down a Democratic motion seeking to subpoena Mark Judge, a Kavanaugh friend who Ford said witnessed the assault. Judge told the committee in a written statement he does not recall any such incident.
Senator Joe Donnelly, a moderate Democrat who last year voted for Trump’s previous Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, announced he would vote against Kavanaugh. Two other key moderate Democrats who voted for Gorsuch, Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin, have not announced how they will vote.
Kavanaugh could be the deciding vote on contentious legal issues if he is confirmed to the nine-member court, with disputes involving abortion, immigration, gay rights, voting rights and transgender troops possibly heading to the court soon.
The court begins its next term on Monday, down one justice after the retirement of conservative Anthony Kennedy effective in July. Trump nominated Kavanaugh to replace Kennedy.
Ford testified on Thursday she was “100 percent certain” Kavanaugh assaulted her. Kavanaugh called himself the victim of “grotesque and obvious character assassination”.
Attention to the hearing moved far beyond the world of Washington politics. Ford has emerged in the eyes of many American women as a compelling figure in the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in three women in the United States experience some form of sexual violence in their lives. About 63 percent of sexual assaults in the US are not reported to the police. More than 90 percent of sexual assault survivors on US college campuses do not report the incident.