FBI Probe of Kavanaugh Will Have Limits Set by White House
(Bloomberg) -- The White House has limited the scope of the FBI probe into Brett Kavanaugh to exclude a third woman who’s come forward with accounts of what she says was sexual misconduct by the Supreme Court nominee.
The bureau hasn’t been authorized to investigate the claims of Julie Swetnick, said a person with knowledge of the probe who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. She’s accused Kavanaugh of engaging in misconduct at parties while he was a high school student in the 1980s.
The claims of Christine Blasey Ford, who testified to a Senate panel on Thursday about an alleged high-school-era assault by Kavanaugh, and of Deborah Ramirez, a Yale University classmate of the judge, will be investigated. Ramirez’s attorney, John Clune, confirmed on Saturday that the FBI had asked for an interview.
In contrast to those characterizations, the president on Saturday said the FBI has “free rein” on the investigation, which he called a “blessing in disguise,” and continued to express faith in Kavanaugh.
‘Scope and Duration’
Trump pushed back in a tweet late Saturday against multiple reports that the probe will be limited. “I want them to interview whoever they deem appropriate, at their discretion.”
White House spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement that “the scope and duration has been set by the Senate. The White House is letting the FBI agents do what they are trained to do.”
After resisting days of Democratic calls for an FBI probe into accusations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh, the Senate Judiciary Committee asked Friday for a brief investigation that would be “limited to current credible allegations.”
That apparently doesn’t extend to Swetnick, who’s represented by attorney and Trump antagonist Michael Avenatti.
“Trump has now determined that he and he alone will be the sole arbiter of whether a woman’s claims of sexual assault and misogyny are credible. Why even have an FBI investigation?” Avenatti said Saturday night on Twitter. “I thought it was their job to make this determination. He and Kavanaugh are afraid of the truth.”
“Still waiting for the FBI to contact me or my client,” Avenatti tweeted early Sunday.
No Back-Up Plan
On Friday, Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake told reporters that the FBI could decide whether to look into accusations made by the two other women after Ford came forward with her account of an alleged assault by Kavanaugh while they were in high school.
Kavanaugh has denied all the allegations, and in a statement released by the White House on Friday said he will be cooperating in the investigation. Trump said Saturday that the agency is “talking to everybody,” and that he’s optimistic his nominee will be elevated to the high court.
“I would expect it’s going to turn out very well for the judge,” Trump told reporters on the White House South Lawn as he departed for a rally in West Virginia. Trump added that he doesn’t need a “back-up plan” for his court pick.
Trump and the Republicans who narrowly control the Senate must now wait -- for up to a week -- for the report by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, an agency that he’s repeatedly attacked and derided as biased against his administration.
Field Office Job
Even without the White House intervention, the FBI agents won’t have subpoena power and will face other constraints on how far they can take the investigation, according to current and former law enforcement officials.
The Kavanaugh inquiry is expected to be tightly controlled by senior FBI officials working with agents in the Washington and Baltimore field offices who will collectively determine who’ll be interviewed, what kind of questions to ask and what, if any, evidence to examine, according to a former senior FBI agent.
But the scope of what will be probed is also going to be informed by the substance of the allegations and what Kavanaugh and his accusers have said publicly, the former agent said.
For example, field agents are likely to ask about Kavanaugh’s use of alcohol in high school and college more than they would in a normal background investigation, a former official said. The judge’s drinking habits was a teenager were discussed at length during Thursday’s Senate hearing. NBC News reported, though, citing sources it didn’t identify, that details of Kavanaugh’s drinking while at Yale will be off limits.
‘Window Is Open’
The FBI will do its job in an apolitical way and report its findings, including any new derogatory information about Kavanaugh, to the White House, said Ronald Hosko, a former senior FBI agent. But people should be cautious about any expectations that the FBI alone can resolve the questions over Kavanaugh, Hosko added.
“The FBI has a job to do and that is to find the truth and present it,” he said. “I’m confident that’s what they will do here.”
“The bureau’s not going to have 50 people over there cooking up leads,” Hosko said. “They’re not looking to find derogatory information but if they find it they’ll present it. The window is open for the next week.”
No Grand Jury
Agents also won’t have the discretion to pursue new leads on their own. Instead, they will be expected to report back to FBI headquarters on what they have learned. Senior bureau officials will then decide whether the leads should be examined and report their findings to the White House, said the former official who asked not to be identified.
Since the inquiry isn’t a criminal investigation, the FBI won’t be making use of a grand jury, according to another former FBI official. Agents won’t be able to subpoena employment files or records about who rented a beach house, or compel witnesses to answer questions.
Yet the FBI could initiate further action on its own if agents uncover evidence of criminal activity or if someone is caught lying to investigators, the former official said.
The inquiry was ordered a day after a tumultuous Senate hearing in which Kavanaugh angrily and tearfully denied the claims by Ford, a California college professor, that he’d sexually assaulted her at a party when they were both in high school.
The FBI referred all questions about the investigation to the White House.
Other senators backed Flake’s request, including Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, as well as Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who’s been viewed as a possible “yes” vote for Kavanaugh as he runs for re-election in a state where Trump is popular.
Democrats had repeatedly demanded an FBI investigation since Ford’s allegation surfaced a few weeks ago, and they hammered at the issue throughout Thursday’s hearing.
Republicans who support Kavanaugh said there was no corroborating evidence for Ford’s allegation. Democrats pointed to the lack of an impartial investigation and the committee’s refusal to call witnesses who might be able to back up her claim, or to seek testimony from the two other women who accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.
Separately, former Kavanaugh classmate Mark Judge -- who Ford says witnessed and encouraged the attack -- told the committee in a letter he would cooperate with any law enforcement agency that investigates “confidentially.”
He also “categorically” denied sexual misconduct claims against him and Kavanaugh made by Swetnick. Judge had previously notified the Judiciary Committee that he didn’t want to testify in public.
A lawyer for Leland Keyser, a woman Ford testified was at the party, says his client will cooperate with the FBI, according to a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee cited Saturday by CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Twitter. Keyser doesn’t remember the party, but stresses she isn’t refuting Ford’s account, the lawyer said, according to Sciutto’s tweet.
Ramirez, who lives in Colorado, says Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a drunken party when they were freshmen at Yale. Swetnick, of Washington, said in a sworn statement released Wednesday that Kavanaugh took part in efforts during high school to get girls intoxicated so that a group of boys could have sex with them.
Avenatti, Swetnick’s attorney, also represented adult film actress Stephanie Clifford in her fight to get out of an October 2016 agreement with Trump to keep quiet about an alleged sexual encounter a decade earlier.
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