The White House appears to be playing all kinds of crafty rhetorical games to obscure the answer to a simple question: Has it deliberately placed limits on the scope of the FBI’s renewed background check into allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, or not?
As of this morning, there are conflicting reports about who will now be interviewed by the FBI. The New York Times reports that the White House directed the FBI to interview only four people: Mark Judge, who is alleged by Christine Blasey Ford to have acted as Kavanaugh’s accomplice in the sexual assault; P.J. Smyth and Leland Keyser, who Ford claims were also in the house; and Deborah Ramirez, who has accused Kavanaugh of exposing himself to her at Yale.
Meanwhile, The Post reports that Kavanaugh will also be interviewed, but that a third accuser — Julie Swetnick — will not be. It’s also not clear whether Ford herself will be contacted — she has not yet been, according to her lawyer.
You’ll be startled to hear that instead of providing clarity, White House officials have sown further confusion. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Fox News that the White House is “not micromanaging this process.” Similarly, counselor Kellyanne Conway told CNN that, while the investigation will be “limited in scope,” the White House is not setting those limits, which will be “up to the FBI” to set. Conway pointed to President Trump’s weekend tweet saying the FBI should “interview whoever they deem appropriate,” and insisted (somehow without dissolving into giggles at her own disingenuousness) that Trump respects the FBI’s “independence.”
Despite that, Sanders and Conway both also said terms are being dictated — by Republican senators. But the White House has not released the precise directive it gave to the FBI, so we cannot know whether the White House is actively imposing those same limits on those senators’ behalf. CNN reports that the White House and GOP senators together developed those limits with the aim of making them “as narrow as possible.”
Clear now? Of course it isn’t. Because that’s exactly how the White House and Republican senators want it.
Former FBI agents I spoke with questioned the apparent limits on the renewed background check.
“It’s not an investigation if the FBI is going to accept the dictates of the White House in terms of who you can interview and who you can’t,” John Mindermann, a former FBI special agent who investigated the Watergate break-in, told me. Mindermann added that the idea of such a limited investigation is “ridiculous” and that if this holds, “it would be unprofessional, it would be grossly incomplete, and it would be unfair to the American public.”
Kavanaugh’s classmates off-limits?
Another former Yale classmate of Kavanaugh’s, Chad Ludington, has now stepped forward to contest Kavanaugh’s sanitized account of his drinking at Yale, claiming that “on many occasions,” he personally witnessed Kavanaugh “staggering from alcohol consumption,” which made him “often belligerent and aggressive.” Ludington flatly asserted that Kavanaugh’s testimony to the Senate about this constituted “lies” and said he’s prepared to talk to the FBI.
But NBC News reports that limits imposed by the White House counsel on the FBI’s investigation preclude questioning former classmates who have contradicted Kavanaugh’s accounts of his drinking. Indeed, other former classmates who have tried to offer the FBI information about him tell the Times and the New Yorker that they haven’t been interviewed. Democrats have pointed out that Kavanaugh’s drinking should be examined because his minimizing of it goes to the core of his credibility, and at any rate, it appears central to the sexual assault allegations themselves.
Indeed, Mindermann told me that a “complete investigation” would include talking to more people “in all of the venues in which Kavanaugh interacted — private school, parties, law school.” Mindermann added that if the FBI “did the job they should and can do, I would be very surprised if they did not find relevant, very significant additional information about Kavanaugh.”
“A complete background check investigation will not be possible without the ability to interview classmates and associates and anybody with knowledge of the circumstances in the time frame in question,” Dennis Franks, a former FBI agent with two decades of experience, added in an interview with me. “The circumstances in this matter deal with allegations of extensive drinking and behavior while intoxicated. This would normally be an issue that is addressed.”
There are other threads that a proper renewed background check might tug upon. Ford testified that she saw Judge at a Safeway in Potomac, Md., just after the alleged assault, and asserted that confirming his stint there might help narrow down the attack’s early 1980s timing. As The Post’s Philip Bump points out, in his book Judge refers to working around that time at a “local supermarket,” but he doesn’t mention Safeway, and the timing is imprecise.
Franks told me that a proper FBI investigation would nail down whether Judge did work at Safeway “during the time frame in question,” and when. If he did, that would seem to enhance Ford’s credibility — though it wouldn’t prove anything — yet this, too, is reportedly off-limits for the probe.
Then there’s the entry on Kavanaugh’s calendar, which indicated that on July 1, 1982, he was set to go to “Timmy’s” for “skis” — that is, brewskis, or beers — with Judge and Smyth (among others), both of whom Ford has claimed were present. “Timmy” is Timothy Gaudette, and The Post has confirmed that his mother owned a house in the area in the early 1980s. Ford says she does not remember which house the alleged attack happened in.
But Franks tells me that an FBI background check could include examining that house’s floor plan, to see whether it matches Ford’s testimony about the details of what happened. “It would be relevant,” Franks said, to “determine whether or not it corresponds.” Mindermann agreed.
If Ford’s depiction of the event did match the floor plan, this would not necessarily prove anything, either. (It’s also worth noting that it might have happened at another house.) But it might again enhance Ford’s credibility. And as Franks told me, the whole point of these background checks is to gather as much information as possible so that lawmakers can evaluate what they’re being told themselves. “An incomplete investigation could create more controversy than it resolves,” Franks said.
You’d think that for lawmakers making this enormously consequential decision about a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court, it would be better to have more information at their disposal rather than less. But it does not appear that the White House and Republican senators agree.
Update: The section on “Timmy’s” house has been tweaked to make it clearer that the alleged assault might have happened at another house.