The FBI investigation meant to defuse the explosive conflict over Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh sparked a new round of partisan combat Sunday, as the White House appeared to retain sharp limits on the probe even as President Trump and Republican officials publicly suggested otherwise.
Two Trump administration officials said Sunday that the White House had not placed any limits on the FBI investigation into claims of sexual assault leveled against Kavanaugh but was also opposed to a “fishing expedition” that could take a broader look at Kavanaugh’s credibility and behavior.
The statements, made by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway in television interviews, followed reports that federal investigators are pursuing allegations made by two women but not a third, Julie Swetnick, who signed a sworn affidavit accusing Kavanaugh of sexually aggressive behavior and being present at parties where gang rapes occurred.
Trump himself tweeted late Saturday that he wanted FBI agents “to interview whoever they deem appropriate, at their discretion.”
But a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations, confirmed Sunday that Swetnick is not expected to be interviewed and said interviews pertaining to the other allegations will be limited to Kavanaugh, the first two accusers and people who have been identified as present for the incidents.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, described a similar witness list in TV appearances Sunday.
White House counsel Donald McGahn is most directly involved in guiding the investigation and has been in frequent touch with Republican senators about its scope, the administration official said, adding that the administration is hoping a report could be filed even sooner than the Friday deadline.
Amid the confusion, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the committee, wrote to McGahn and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray on Sunday asking for a copy of any “written directive” sent to investigators.
Other Democrats warned over the weekend against too many limits on the purview of the investigation.
“They ought to be doing multiple investigations at the same time,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a Judiciary Committee member, said in an MSNBC interview Saturday. “There are multiple allegations currently in front of the committee, and I think it is not hard to figure out the universe of witnesses. It is not 500. It may not be 50. But it has to be more than five.”
White House spokesman Raj Shah said Sunday that Democrats are “merely attempting to further delay and politicize” the investigation. And Trump, in a shift in tone from the night before, tweeted Sunday afternoon that Democrats are “are starting to put out the word that the ‘time’ and ‘scope’ of FBI looking into Judge Kavanaugh and witnesses is not enough. Hello! For them, it will never be enough — stay tuned and watch!”
The squabbling added to the swirl of public confusion over the parameters of the FBI inquiry and who is setting them. The order to the FBI was signed by Trump but has not been made public. White House officials have sought to lay responsibility for the details on either the Senate or the FBI.
The president’s Saturday tweet also sparked confusion in the FBI, which had previously been told to conduct only a limited investigation of particular allegations, a person familiar with the matter said. It was unclear Sunday whether there had been more communications between the White House and the FBI clarifying what agents should look into.
The only official description of parameters has come from Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who said Friday that the FBI investigation would be no more than a week long and would be limited solely to “current credible allegations” against Kavanaugh.
Grassley and other senators have provided few other specifics, and a committee spokesman declined to comment after Trump’s tweet Saturday endorsing a broader approach. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also declined to provide more information Sunday about the inquiry’s boundaries, though McConnell’s office circulated materials seeking to undermine Swetnick’s credibility.
Sanders said on “Fox News Sunday” that the White House is “not micromanaging this process” but also said an investigation into Swetnick’s claims and whether Kavanaugh may have misled lawmakers in his Senate testimony would not be acceptable.
“The Senate is dictating the terms. They laid out the request, and we’ve opened it up,” she said, adding, “This can’t become a fishing expedition like the Democrats would like to see it be.”
Conway said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that “it’s not meant to be a fishing expedition.” She added that who will be interviewed was “up to the FBI” in its expanded background investigation into Kavanaugh.
Thursday’s riveting hearing, featuring testimony from California professor Christine Blasey Ford about her allegations that Kavanaugh assaulted her when both were high school students in the early 1980s, prompted several wavering Republican senators to demand a more thorough federal investigation of the allegations.
The FBI had not yet contacted Ford for an interview, one of her advisers said Sunday afternoon. An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment Sunday.
At the hearing, Kavanaugh angrily and categorically denied assaulting Ford or any other woman. Two others, Swetnick and Debbie Ramirez, have publicly come forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.
Ramirez alleges that Kavanaugh, as a Yale University freshman, drunkenly exposed himself and shoved his penis in her face in front of a group of classmates, according to an account she gave to the New Yorker. Her attorney said Saturday that Ramirez planned to cooperate with the investigation. She spoke with the FBI on Sunday, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
Swetnick’s accusations, in a sworn statement brought forward by lawyer and potential 2020 presidential candidate Michael Avenatti, have been treated much more gingerly, including by Democrats, due to a lack of corroboration.
Senate Democrats have put special emphasis on having the FBI interview the people Ford says were present for the party where the alleged assault took place — particularly Mark Judge, the high school classmate of Kavanaugh who Ford says was in the room for the incident. Judge has said in written statements that he does not recall the incident; Senate Republicans declined to call him to testify. Two others said by Ford to have been present for the party have also said they do not recall it.
An attorney for one potential witness, Elizabeth Rasor, said her client has not been contacted by the FBI despite repeated offers to cooperate. Roberta Kaplan said her client, who was in a relationship with Judge for about three years, has notified the Judiciary Committee several times about her offer of assistance.
Rasor last week publicly challenged Judge’s statement that he could not recall roughhousing taking place with women while at Georgetown Prep in Montgomery County, Md. In an interview with the New Yorker, Rasor said she felt morally obligated to reveal that Judge had told her “a very different story,” recounting an incident that involved multiple boys having sex with a drunk woman. Rasor said Judge had said the encounter was consensual and he did not name others involved in the incident. But Rasor was disturbed by the story and felt it undermined Judge’s claims about the sexual innocence of those at Georgetown Prep. Judge’s attorney told the New Yorker that her client “categorically denies” Rasor’s account.
Charles Ludington, a former varsity basketball player and friend of Kavanaugh’s at Yale, told The Washington Post on Sunday that he plans to deliver a statement to the FBI field office in Raleigh on Monday detailing violent drunken behavior by Kavanaugh in college.
Ludington, an associate professor at North Carolina State University, provided a copy of the statement to The Post.
In it, Ludington says in one instance, Kavanaugh initiated a fight that led to the arrest of a mutual friend: “When Brett got drunk, he was often belligerent and aggressive. On one of the last occasions I purposely socialized with Brett, I witnessed him respond to a semi-hostile remark, not by defusing the situation, but by throwing his beer in the man’s face and starting a fight that ended with one of our mutual friends in jail.”
Ludington says he was deeply troubled by Kavanaugh appearing to blatantly mischaracterize his drinking in Senate testimony.
“I do not believe that the heavy drinking or even loutish behavior of an 18 or even 21 year old should condemn a person for the rest of his life,” Ludington wrote. “However ... if he lied about his past actions on national television, and more especially while speaking under oath in front of the United States Senate, I believe those lies should have consequences.”
Many Democrats have called for the FBI to take a broader look at whether Kavanaugh may have misled senators by minimizing his carousing behavior in high school and college or by mischaracterizing entries in his high school yearbook that could indicate a penchant for drunken and misogynistic behavior.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), speaking on CNN, said Kavanaugh’s claims that he had never blacked out or suffered any memory loss while drinking don’t “quite make sense to me” and said she hoped the FBI would interview friends to determine whether that was credible.
She added that the FBI could also interview high school friends of Kavanaugh’s to determine whether his innocent explanations for portions of his yearbook entry are accurate.
“I’ve never heard that the White House, either under this president or other presidents, is saying: ‘Well, you can’t interview this person; you can’t look at this time period; you can only look at these people from one side of the street,’” she said. “I mean, come on.”
Graham said the parameters of the investigation are based on the wishes of three wavering Republican colleagues — Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — for a “limited review.”
“They wanted . . . the FBI to talk with the witnesses that Dr. Ford named,” he said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “They want to talk to Ms. Ramirez, because she refused to talk to the committee. They’re going to Mark Judge — ‘Did you ever see Brett Kavanaugh drug women or engage in gang rape?’ I think that’s going to be the focus of it.”
Collins said in a statement Sunday that she is “confident that the FBI will follow up on any leads that result from the interviews.” Aides to Murkowski did not respond to messages sent Sunday asking about their own expectations for the new review.
Flake, who prompted the new FBI investigation by threatening to withhold his vote to confirm Kavanaugh, said in an interview with “60 Minutes” that investigators would “ask questions that maybe will prompt things” that could “lead to additional interviews that can take place as well.”
He also said he found Kavanaugh’s testimony Thursday to be “partisan” at times and that “his interaction with some of the members was a little too sharp.”
But, Flake said, he understood his anger. “If I was unjustly accused, that’s how I would feel, as well,” he said.
Both Sanders and Conway on Sunday floated a theory, circulating in conservative circles for weeks, that Ford was in fact assaulted by someone else. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee said last week they interviewed two men who said they might have had the encounter with Ford that she described, but no Republican senator has lent any credence to those claims.
Ford testified Thursday that she was “100 percent” certain that Kavanaugh, not another man, assaulted her in 1982. Kavanaugh, testifying hours later, said he was “100 percent” certain that he was innocent of the accusation.
“Nobody could deny that her testimony wasn’t compelling, that it wasn’t impactful,” Sanders said. “I do think the big question is, was that Brett Kavanaugh?”
An open letter “call to action” sent Saturday by two Georgetown Preparatory School graduates in support of Ford — and “ in solidarity with women everywhere who have endured sexual assault, violence, and harassment” — called on fellow alumni to reach out to the FBI if they have any information to share relevant to the Kavanaugh investigation.
“The Senate has called for an FBI investigation. If you know anything surrounding the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, now is the time to come forward,” the letter states. “Whether it is knowledge of specific events in these allegations, or just background to those events, please do not remain silent, even if speaking out comes at some personal cost.”
The letter is signed by Fikri Yucel and Bill Barbot, both Class of 1986, who overlapped with Kavanaugh at the school when they were freshman and he was a senior. In an interview Sunday, Yucel said that more than 60 Georgetown Prep alumni from the early 1980s through 2012 have co-signed the letter and that it is being shared on Facebook and social media.
Emma Brown, Anne Gearan, Tom Hamburger, Joe Heim, Seung Min Kim and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.