Former FBI director James B. Comey waded into the debate over the extended investigation of Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh on Monday, expressing confidence in the FBI’s ability to gather facts in a week’s time — but also blasting Republicans for putting a “shot clock” on the agency.
The deal to reopen the FBI’s background investigation of Kavanaugh was brokered by two senators as a last-minute attempt to restore faith in an embattled institution, after grueling hearings with both the nominee and with Christine Blasey Ford. Ford, a research psychologist and professor in California, has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a house party in the 1980s, when they were in high school; Kavanaugh has denied the claims.
But over the weekend, more questions emerged about the scope of the probe: Would FBI agents be limited in whom they could interview? Would they also investigate claims from two other women accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick? And what new details, if any, could they find surrounding Ford’s claims from more than three decades ago — particularly in only seven days?
In a guest opinion column for the New York Times, Comey called the process “deeply flawed” but said an investigation by professional agents who are expert interviewers is better than none at all.
“Unless limited in some way by the Trump administration, [FBI agents] can speak to scores of people in a few days, if necessary,” Comey wrote. “They will confront people with testimony and other accounts, testing them and pushing them in a professional way. Agents have much better nonsense detectors than partisans, because they aren’t starting with a conclusion.”
Comey acknowledged the difficulty of confirming details about incidents from long ago but said it wouldn’t be an insurmountable hurdle. For one, he said, agents can follow the lies.
“F.B.I. agents know time has very little to do with memory,” Comey wrote. “They know every married person remembers the weather on their wedding day, no matter how long ago. Significance drives memory. They also know that little lies point to bigger lies. They know that obvious lies by the nominee about the meaning of words in a yearbook are a flashing signal to dig deeper.”
Comey was alluding to a page in Kavanaugh’s senior yearbook that came into question during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last Thursday for its apparent references to sexual acts (including “Judge — have you boofed yet?” and “Devil’s Triangle”) and drinking to excess (“Beach Week Ralph Club — Biggest Contributor”).
Kavanaugh insisted to the committee that “boofed” referred to flatulence, that “Devil’s Triangle” was a drinking game, and that he might have been the biggest contributor to the “Ralph Club” because he had a weak stomach.
Kavanaugh also explained that the phrase “Renate Alumnius” on his yearbook page (seemingly an attempt, using incorrect Latin, to reference being an “alumnus” of a girl named Renate Schroeder) was meant to convey “affection, and that she was one of us.” The phrase “Renate Alumni” and other references to the student appear multiple times in other boys' pages in the yearbook.
Schroeder, now Renate Schroeder Dolphin, told the New York Times before the hearing that she had not known about the yearbook references until now — and that she did not take it as a sign of affection.
“I can’t begin to comprehend what goes through the minds of 17-year-old boys who write such things, but the insinuation is horrible, hurtful and simply untrue,” Dolphin told the Times. “I pray their daughters are never treated this way. I will have no further comment.”
On Thursday night, Comey first hinted that Kavanaugh’s explanations for various items on his yearbook page could be problematic.
“Small lies matter, even about yearbooks,” Comey tweeted then.
In his op-ed, Comey also said FBI agents could bring out new information — even from people who have previously submitted statements via lawyers — because “it is a very different thing to sit across from two FBI special agents and answer their relentless questions.”
Comey was probably referring there to Mark Judge, Kavanaugh’s high school friend whom Ford said was in the room when the alleged assault occurred. Judge was not subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Comey suggested that that could change if FBI agents speak to previously elusive potential witnesses such as Judge, whom Washington Post reporters found holed up last week in a beach house in Delaware.
“Once they start interviewing, every witness knows the consequences,” Comey wrote. “Of course, the bureau won’t have subpoena power, only the ability to knock on doors and ask questions. But most people will speak to them. Refusal to do so is its own kind of statement.”
Comey’s op-ed also contained some of his sharpest criticism yet of President Trump, who abruptly fired Comey as director of the FBI last May:
We live in a world where the president routinely attacks the F.B.I. because he fears its work. He calls for his enemies to be prosecuted and his friends freed. We also live in a world where a sitting federal judge channels the president by shouting attacks at the Senate committee considering his nomination and demanding to know if a respected senator has ever passed out from drinking. We live in a world where the president is an accused serial abuser of women, who was caught on tape bragging about his ability to assault women and now likens the accusations against his nominee to the many “false” accusations against him.
“Most disturbingly,” Comey continued, “we live in a world where millions of Republicans and their representatives think nearly everything in the previous paragraph is O.K.”
Comey, a longtime registered Republican, revealed earlier this year he had left the party because of the direction it had taken under Trump.
Ultimately, whatever FBI agents find, Comey said it is likely that both Republicans and Democrats will be angry at the agency. It was “idiotic to put a shot clock on the FBI,” he wrote.
“If truth were the only goal, there would be no clock, and the investigation wouldn’t have been sought after the Senate Judiciary Committee already endorsed the nominee,” he wrote. “Instead, it seems that the Republican goal is to be able to say there was an investigation and it didn’t change their view, while the Democrats hope for incriminating evidence to derail the nominee.”
That wasn’t necessarily a bad place to be, he concluded.
“As strange as it sounds, there is freedom in being totally screwed. Agents can just do their work. Find facts. Speak truth to power,” Comey wrote. “Despite all the lies and all the attacks, there really are people who just want to figure out what’s true. The F.B.I. is full of them.”