Republicans Reject Kavanaugh Accuser's Request To Delay Hearing For FBI Investigation

Sep 18, 2018
Originally published on September 19, 2018 2:38 pm

Updated at 11 p.m. ET

The Senate Judiciary Committee will move forward with a hearing scheduled for Monday on sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, despite a request for further investigation from his accuser.

The decision follows the release of a letter sent to Senate Judiciary Commitee Chairman Chuck Grassley from attorneys representing Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her more than three decades ago when they were teenagers. In the letter, Ford's attorneys said an FBI investigation should be "the first step in addressing her allegations."

Ford's attorneys argue that an investigation is necessary so that "the Committee is fully informed before conducting any hearing or making any decisions." Ford's attorneys also say that since she went public with her allegations "she has been the target of vicious harassment and even death threats." They also complained that the committee scheduled Ford to "testify at the same table as Judge Kavanaugh in front of two dozen U.S. Senators on national television to relive this traumatic and harrowing incident."

Grassley declined Tuesday night to delay the hearing.

"The invitation for Monday still stands," Grassley said in a statement. "Nothing the FBI or any other investigator does would have any bearing on what Dr. Ford tells the committee, so there is no reason for any further delay."

Grassley's decision echoed the sentiment of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The FBI does not do investigations like this. The responsibility falls to us," Hatch tweeted, adding "We should proceed as planned."

And retiring Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., suggested that if Ford did not appear at Monday's hearing, Senate Republicans should proceed to move forward considering Kavanaugh's nomination. " If we don't hear from both sides on Monday, let's vote," Corker posted on Twitter late Tuesday night.

The letter from Ford's attorneys and Grassley's response capped a day of uncertainty about the next step in the Kavanaugh confirmation process, which has spiraled into turmoil in recent days.

Ford's attorneys stopped short of saying Ford will refuse to appear before the committee while objecting to the rushed timeline and comments from Republican senators who seemed to question her accusations.

"The hearing was scheduled for six short days from today and would include interrogation by Senators who appear to have made up their minds that she is 'mistaken' and 'mixed up,' " the letter reads. "While no sexual assault survivor should be subjected to such an ordeal, Dr. Ford wants to cooperate with the Committee and with law enforcement officials."

Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, issued statements supporting Ford's concerns about the hearing.

"I strongly support Dr. Ford's call for an FBI investigation before a hearing is held," Schumer said. "Dr. Ford's call for the FBI to investigate also demonstrates her confidence that when all the facts are examined by an impartial investigation, her account will be further corroborated and confirmed."

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, also weighed in to support Ford.

"We should honor Dr. Blasey Ford's wishes and delay this hearing," Feinstein said in a statment. "A proper investigation must be completed, witnesses interviewed, evidence reviewed and all sides spoken to. Only then should the chairman set a hearing date."

Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the Senate Judiciary Committee would offer Ford the opportunity to testify in either an open public session or behind closed doors about her allegation.

"She could do it privately if she prefers, or publicly if she prefers," McConnell said, adding, "Monday is her opportunity." He stressed that Kavanaugh is eager to provide his testimony.

Democratic aides have privately floated the possibility of boycotting the hearing if Republicans choose to proceed without Ford present.

Grassley's committee staff has already begun conducting preliminary interviews by phone with alleged witnesses related to the incident that Ford described to the Washington Post as having happened in the early 1980s when she and Kavanaugh were teenagers living in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Aides plan follow-up sessions as needed to obtain additional information ahead of Monday's planned public hearing.

Ford named Mark Judge, a classmate of Kavanaugh's, as a witness to the incident at the high school party, but Judge told the Weekly Standard earlier this week he doesn't recall the episode.

Grassley's office released a letter from Judge's attorney on Tuesday with a statement from him saying he has "no memory" of the incident. He also says, "I have no more information to offer the Committee and I do not wish to speak publicly regarding the incidents described in Dr. Ford's letter."

Democrats have rejected the GOP process and are refusing to participate in any committee phone interviews. They are insisting that the hearing be delayed to further explore the allegations. They want additional witnesses beyond Kavanaugh and Ford to be added to the planned hearing Monday.

But their primary demand is one that Ford asked for her in her letter Tuesday night — that the FBI conduct a full evaluation before any hearing is held.

That's a proposal President Trump himself rejected earlier Tuesday prior to the release of the letter from Ford's attorneys.

"That's not what they do," Trump said. "They have done now, supposedly, six background checks as Judge Kavanaugh has gone beautifully up a ladder."

On Monday a spokesperson for the Justice Department indicated that the FBI does not get involved in matters unless a federal crime is alleged and that it had completed its work related to Kavanaugh's background check.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Polish President Andrzej Sebastian Duda, Trump said Tuesday he feels "so badly" that Kavanaugh is going through the ordeal of the accusations.

"I feel terribly for him, for his wife and for his beautiful young daughters," Trump said. "I feel terribly for them."

Washington state Sen. Patty Murray, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, told reporters that an FBI investigation is necessary to ensure a full and impartial assessment of the accusations.

"Scheduling a hearing for Monday, a week from when Dr. Ford made her accusations public, is a shameful attempt to jam this through without giving anyone the time they need to investigate and put together the questions that need to be asked," Murray said. "This is a test for the United States Senate on how we handle accusations of sexual harassment and assault."

Murray and other Democrats are drawing a direct parallel between the claims against Kavanaugh and those raised in 1991 when Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. At the time an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee aggressively questioned Hill in televised hearings, cast doubt on her accusations and ultimately voted to move Thomas' nomination to the full Senate which confirmed him to the court.

That incident inspired a record number of women to run for federal office that cycle, including Murray, who was elected the following year. Murray told reporters America — and women in particular — will be closely watching how Ford's case is handled.

"If Republicans attack Dr. Ford and this turns into anything like what we saw in 1991, women across the country are going to rise up and make their voice heard and Republicans will pay a very huge price," Murray said. "I am here today to say, once again, women are watching, we are not going allow that to happen again."

Before Ford asked for an FBI investigation, McConnell and other leaders said they wanted to hear directly from Ford but were standing firm on their expectation that she appear before the committee on Monday, blaming Democrats for creating a disorderly examination of Kavanaugh's record.

"Next week Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh will testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee under oath," McConnell said Tuesday. "We should not have gotten to this point. That this process has played out with so little order and so little sensitivity lies solely at the feet of Senate Democrats."

Republicans have accused Feinstein of concealing details of Ford's accusation for several months after it was sent to her office in July.

Feinstein referred the information to the FBI but did not discuss it until Ford went public over the weekend. She defended her decision to keep the letter private Tuesday, saying she was respecting Ford's own request for anonymity and following procedure for working with federal investigators.

"What we were trying to do was get an investigation," Feinstein said. "We were going through all of that process."

Some Republicans are warning that the Judiciary Committee has to tread lightly and handle the accusations with respect, regardless of their timing. Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., told reporters that there is a risk in being too aggressive or appearing to bully Ford. McConnell and other top GOP leaders repeatedly stressed that Ford deserved to be heard and they hoped she would agree to testify.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who is one of just a handful of Republicans who have not said whether they plan to support Kavanaugh, proposed calling both Kavanaugh and Ford to testify and allowing their attorneys to question them both as witnesses. "I believe that would elicit the most information," Collins said.

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Come Monday, both Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and university professor Christine Blasey Ford may appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senate Republicans say Ford has yet to accept the invitation, although just yesterday her lawyer told NPR she'd be willing to testify. Ford has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers decades ago. Her allegations have put his nomination in question.

And to tell us where things stand now, we're joined by NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell. And, Kelsey, give us what you've learned so far. Where do things stand now with this nomination that was once on a fast track?

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Yeah, Republicans canceled a hearing that they had planned for this Thursday to vote on his nomination. And instead they've announced plans for a hearing on Monday. And they invited Kavanaugh and Ford to appear so that they can both explain their side of the story. Now, Kavanaugh has repeatedly said he didn't do anything like what he's been accused of. But Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley says they've had zero response from Ford about coming to this hearing and that they haven't heard back from her attorney either. And I should be clear. NPR has also made several attempts to reach Ford and her attorney without any response.

Now, some senators are raising questions about why they would bother having a hearing if she doesn't participate. But Republican leaders say they've offered to allow her to testify behind closed doors or in an open hearing, which leaves open the possibility that the public will not actually ever hear this testimony despite Republicans saying the whole point of the hearing is to get her side out in public.

CORNISH: And Democrats - are they OK with that plan?

SNELL: No, they're really not. They say they need more time, and they want to call more witnesses. Patty Murray, who's the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, was pretty forceful about it today.


PATTY MURRAY: Scheduling a hearing for Monday, a week from when Dr. Ford made her accusations public, is a shameful attempt to jam this through without giving anyone the time they need to investigate and put together the questions that need to be asked.

SNELL: So that's basically their whole argument here - is that they need more time, that this accusation is very serious and that there needs to be research. And Republicans said just a bit ago that they reached out to Mark Judge, who was a witness that Ford alleges was present at the party where she says she was assaulted by Kavanaugh. And Judge responded in a letter saying that he has no memory of the incident and declined to appear. So it's still kind of evolving.

CORNISH: There's also been some controversy about the FBI's involvement in all of this.

SNELL: Right.

CORNISH: Now, given that the alleged assault happened more than 30 years ago, what is the FBI's role here?

SNELL: Well, that's up for some debate. Democrats say the judiciary committee and their members just really aren't equipped to be handling an investigation into an accusation of sexual assault. They say the staff on that committee does background checks and looks into legal matters for nominees. And that's really different, they say, than conducting a sweep of someone's behavior more than 30 years ago when they were in high school. Democrats say they don't want to be putting Ford on trial and that the hearing Republicans are proposing could become a kind of he said, she said. And, you know, that's something that Democrats say they would like to avoid and that the FBI could help make that happen.

CORNISH: But does it look like they could even reopen a case between now and Monday?

SNELL: Yeah, not at this point. President Trump has said he doesn't think that the FBI should be involved. And Republicans on the Hill say they have no authority to force the FBI to open investigations. So Trump addressed it several times today, including this morning.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't think the FBI really should be involved because they don't want to be involved. If they wanted to be, I would certainly do that. But as you know, they say this is not really their thing. But I think politically speaking, the senators will do a very good job.

SNELL: Now, he repeated something really similar this afternoon when he told reporters that the FBI already did six background checks into Kavanaugh and that he said again and again this really isn't the FBI's thing. So it doesn't sound like this is something that the White House is really going to push for.

CORNISH: So what is the strategy for Senate Republicans?

SNELL: They're going out of their way to be very public about the steps they're taking to interview witnesses and contact Ford. They're sending reporters constant emails with these updates on their efforts, and they're active on social media. They've said over and over that she deserved to be heard. But they're saying Democrats aren't participating in this. So they're not really showing any signs of slowing down. And one thing they want to avoid is any comparisons to 1991 when Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment at his confirmation. So they're really trying to keep it out in public.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell at the Senate. Kelsey, thank you.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.