WASHINGTON | Senior Trump administration officials insisted Sunday that the White House is not “micromanaging” a new FBI background check of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and that senators are dictating the parameters of the investigation.
President Donald Trump initially opposed such an investigation in the face of sexual misconduct claims against Kavanaugh, but the president and Senate Republican leaders agreed to an inquiry after GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona made clear he would not vote to confirm Kavanaugh without one.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said White House counsel Don McGahn, who is shepherding Kavanaugh’s nomination, “has allowed the Senate to dictate what these terms look like, and what the scope of the investigation is.”
“The White House isn’t intervening. We’re not micromanaging this process. It’s a Senate process. It has been from the beginning, and we’re letting the Senate continue to dictate what the terms look like,” Sanders said.
Counselor Kellyanne Conway said the investigation will be “limited in scope” and “will not be a fishing expedition. The FBI is not tasked to do that.”
The precise scope of the investigation remained unclear.
Trump told reporters Saturday that the FBI “is all over talking to everybody” and that “this could be a blessing in disguise.”
“They have free rein. They’re going to do whatever they have to do, whatever it is they do. They’ll be doing things that we have never even thought of,” Trump said as he left the White House for a trip to West Virginia. “And hopefully at the conclusion everything will be fine.”
He revisited the “scope” question later Saturday on Twitter, writing in part, “I want them to interview whoever they deem appropriate, at their discretion.”
Sanders said Trump, who has vigorously defended Kavanaugh but also raised the slight possibility of withdrawing the nomination should damaging information be found, “will listen to the facts” of the FBI investigation. But she expressed confidence that no new information will be uncovered, noting that the allegations had not surfaced during the judge’s six prior background checks for positions in the executive and judicial branches of government.
“I think we’re all pretty confident, given that we’ve been through this process a number of times, but we would assess that at that point,” Sanders said.
A person familiar with what Senate Republicans have asked of the White House said the request listed the people whom lawmakers want the FBI to interview and that the White House then asked the bureau to carry out the request. It was not immediately clear who is on the list, according to the person, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the process and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Kavanaugh supporter, said testimony will be taken from Deborah Ramirez, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when they were Yale classmates; her attorney said Saturday that she has agreed to cooperate. Kavanaugh has denied Ramirez’s claim that he exposed himself to her at a party in the early 1980s.
Graham also said testimony will be taken from Kavanaugh’s high school friend Mark Judge. Two of Kavanaugh’s three accusers have implicated Judge. He has denied all allegations against him. Kavanaugh also denies all the claims of sexual misconduct dating to his high school and college years.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said last week that he understood that the FBI would investigate all of “the outstanding allegations, the three of them,” but Republicans have not said whether that was their understanding as well.
At least three women have accused Kavanaugh, a federal appeals court judge, of years-ago misconduct. He denies all the claims.
Another woman, Julie Swetnick, accused Kavanaugh and Judge of excessive drinking and inappropriate treatment of women in the early 1980s, among other accusations. Kavanaugh has called her accusations a “joke” and Judge has said he “categorically” denies the allegations.
Swetnick’s attorney, Michael Avenatti, said Saturday that his client had not been contacted by the FBI but was willing to cooperate with investigators.
Judge, who California professor Christine Blasey Ford says was in the room when a drunken Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, said he will cooperate with any law enforcement agency that will “confidentially investigate” sexual misconduct allegations against him and Kavanaugh. Judge has also denied misconduct allegations.
Lawyers for P.J. Smyth and Leland Ingham Keyser, two others who Ford said were in the house when she was attacked, have said their clients are willing to cooperate “fully” with the FBI. An attorney for Keyser reaffirmed her previous statement that she doesn’t know Kavanaugh and has no recollection of ever being at a gathering or party where he was present, the Senate Judiciary Committee said in a statement Saturday night.
Calls for an FBI investigation of Kavanaugh mounted after Ford alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party when they were teenagers. Kavanaugh has denied being the perpetrator.
In dueling appearances last Thursday, he and Ford told their stories during sworn testimony before the Senate Committee. The panel voted Friday, along party lines, to send the nomination to the full Senate, and Flake then offered his proposal for the FBI investigation.
Trump ordered the FBI to reopen Kavanaugh’s background investigation, delaying a final vote on the nomination. The committee has said the probe should be limited to “current credible allegations” against Kavanaugh and be finished by Friday.
The FBI conducts background checks for federal nominees, but the agency does not make judgments on the credibility or significance of allegations. Investigators will compile information about Kavanaugh’s past and provide their findings to the White House and include the information in Kavanaugh’s background file, which is available to senators.
Sanders spoke on “Fox News Sunday,” Conway appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” and Graham was interviewed on ABC’s “This Week.”
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington and Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report.