The forced withdrawal Thursday of a Trump judicial nominee over his college writings inflamed the battle over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, with Democrats escalating their demands to see all of his past documents, even though that could top 1 million pages.
The failure of Ryan Bounds’s nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit was a major blow to the Trump administration and Senate Republicans, whose ambition to remake the federal judiciary had been proceeding at a rapid clip. Bounds would have been the 24th of President Trump’s picks to be confirmed to the powerful appellate courts.
But Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the Senate’s lone African American Republican, rebelled against Bounds’s nomination, privately raising concerns about the attorney’s writings while a student at Stanford University that disparaged multiculturalism and groups concerned with racial issues. Although Bounds secured all the Republican votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee, multiple GOP officials said other Republicans were prepared to vote against him after Scott had expressed his objections.
Senate Democrats, who have so far declined to sit down with Kavanaugh for courtesy meetings until the two parties reach a deal on documents, immediately pounced on the failure of Bounds’s nomination over his writings to argue that the Supreme Court nominee needs to produce all of his paperwork.
Kavanaugh worked for five years in the George W. Bush White House, including as staff secretary, which made him the conduit for all paperwork that went through the administration.
“A lower-court nominee’s college writings are relevant, but a Supreme Court nominee’s White House writings aren’t?” asked Matt House, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) “I don’t think so.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who will lead the confirmation hearings for Kavanaugh, is still weighing the expansive document request from Democrats. His aides, as well as staff members for Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, met Wednesday with a lawyer at the George W. Bush presidential library to discuss what kinds of documents were available from Kavanaugh’s time in the White House.
But Grassley also signaled he wants to pare down the documents to papers that are germane to Kavanaugh’s nomination. In addition to his time in the Bush White House, Kavanaugh served as deputy to independent counsel Kenneth Starr in the mid-1990s and took part in drafting the report that helped trigger the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
“I think the principal word that we ought to use is, we ought to have any records that are relevant to his appointment to the Supreme Court,” Grassley said Thursday. “How would I know whether millions of pages of records are relevant? There’s people going through that right now trying to make that decision.”
But Feinstein said after Bounds’s nomination was pulled that “if Republicans are so concerned about the speed at which Kavanaugh is considered, they should get on board with a request for all documents related to Kavanaugh’s record as soon as possible.”
The tussle over documents is just one element of the broader war in the Senate over the 53-year-old Kavanaugh, nominated to replace retiring Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and whose confirmation probably would tilt the balance of the Supreme Court rightward for decades.
Kavanaugh has made the rounds on Capitol Hill since his nomination last week but has met only with Republicans. Among the GOP senators he sat down with on Thursday were Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada.
But outside pressure over Kavanaugh has centered largely on just half a dozen senators: Three Democrats from Republican-leaning states up for reelection who also voted for Justice Neil M. Gorsuch (Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana), two Republicans who back abortion rights (Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has publicly raised concerns about Kavanaugh’s views on the Fourth Amendment and privacy issues.
“I think it’s all in the definition of ‘all,’ ” Murkowski said. “There is a lot, and I’m sure there is a lot of stuff that he kind of processed when he was at the White House that is not going to be relevant to his background.”
Collins noted simply: “That would be every single piece of paper that crossed the desk of the president.”
Corker said asking for all of Kavanaugh’s paperwork “feels dilatory to me.” And Flake said that demanding all 1 million-plus pages seemed excessive and that the request “needs to be reasonable.”
But other Democrats who say they’re keeping an open mind on Kavanaugh said the nominee should deliver all the paperwork that he touched.
“Ideally, yes,” all the documents should be produced, said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.). He said there were “a gazillion documents produced for [Justice] Elena Kagan, and . . . I think those are all fair game.”
There is no date set for Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, although the White House and Senate Republicans would like to have the former Kennedy clerk installed at the high court by the time it opens its fall term on the first Monday in October.
The failure of Bounds’s nomination Thursday also underscored the Republicans’ tenuous majority in the Senate, where the GOP controls 51 votes but is functionally at 50 because of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) prolonged absence while he is being treated for brain cancer.
Scott privately raised concerns about Bounds and his writings to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a close ally, and the Florida senator said he also would oppose his nomination, according to a Republican official familiar with those discussions. All Democrats had opposed Bounds, and several more Republicans were poised to reject him had his confirmation vote commenced, GOP officials said.
Neither Scott nor Rubio are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which vets all judicial nominees.
Democrats had opposed Bounds’s nomination over his Stanford articles. He apologized for those writings this year.
Bounds’s nomination also infuriated Democrats because both of his home state senators, Oregon Democrats Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, had declined to submit “blue slips” for him that traditionally would give the Judiciary Committee the go-ahead to proceed with confirmation hearings.