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Capitol braces for a battle

Capitol braces for a battle

FBI starts contacting potential witnesses to Kavanaugh claims
Capitol braces for a battle
Protesters opposed to the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court rally outside the court Friday.
Photographer: New York Times

WASHINGTON — The one-week clock on the FBI’s new background investigation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh began ticking Saturday as Washington braced for the possibility of days of renewed political combat over whether he should be seated on the Supreme Court.

Law enforcement officials began reaching out to potential witnesses as they look into allegations of sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh. Last week, Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychologist from California, described what she called a rape attempt by the judge in the early 1980s as she gave searing testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A lawyer for another accuser, Deborah Ramirez, a Yale classmate of Kavanaugh’s who asserted that the judge exposed his genitals to her during a dorm party, said Saturday that the FBI had contacted him about talking with Ramirez.

“We can confirm the FBI has reached out to interview Ms. Ramirez and she has agreed to cooperate with their investigation,” John Clune, her lawyer, said in a statement Saturday, declining to comment further.

Kavanaugh angrily denied the accusations from both Blasey and Ramirez during his own testimony before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

At least one of the potential witnesses who is likely to be interviewed by the FBI — Leland Keyser, who Blasey said was at the high school gathering where the assault is said to have occurred — notified the Judiciary Committee on Saturday morning that she would cooperate with the FBI’s investigation.

Keyser, a longtime friend of Blasey’s, has said she does not recall the gathering in question. But her lawyer, Howard Walsh, said in a letter to the committee that his client’s lack of a memory of the gathering does not mean she does not believe Blasey.

“Notably, Ms. Keyser does not refute Dr. Ford’s account, and she has already told the press that she believes Dr. Ford’s account,” her lawyer wrote. Blasey sometimes goes by her married name, Ford.
In his testimony Thursday, Kavanaugh claimed that Keyser’s earlier statements had “refuted” Blasey’s accusations.

The delay in a full Senate vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation to accommodate the new examination was forced Friday by Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Without their votes to confirm the judge,

President Donald Trump and Republican leaders in the Senate had no choice but to request an FBI inquiry — a move Democrats had demanded for days.

Flake, who is retiring, described to The Atlantic on Friday night his last-minute decision to change his mind on moving ahead with a quick confirmation of Kavanaugh. Flake said he was motivated to call for a delay as a way to preserve the institutions of the Senate and the Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court is the lone institution where most Americans still have some faith. And then the U.S. Senate as an institution — we’re coming apart at the seams,” Flake said, echoing remarks he made when he announced his retirement. “There’s no currency, no market for reaching across the aisle. It just makes it so difficult.”

Flake conceded that opponents of Kavanaugh’s confirmation may try to use the delay to dig up more dirt on him. But the senator said that unless the FBI investigation revealed new concerns, he was likely to support the judge’s confirmation.

“I’m a conservative. He’s a conservative. I plan to support him unless they turn up something — and they might,” said Flake, who has indicated that he would like the FBI to speak to Mark Judge, a friend of Kavanaugh’s whom Blasey has identified as a key witness to her allegation and who has disputed her account.

Still, the move left both parties nervous and uncertain about what might happen in the battle over the Supreme Court, which is playing out just weeks before voters go to the polls in elections that will determine control of Congress for the remainder of Trump’s term in office.

The nationally televised testimony by Blasey and Kavanaugh may have deepened the divides in an already polarized electorate. If Kavanaugh is confirmed, that could increase the number of women and liberals who turn out to vote. If he is rejected, enraged conservatives might surge to the polls.

The new investigation by the FBI is a limited background check of Kavanaugh, not a full-fledged criminal inquiry. The bureau is looking into only what it has been ordered to examine by the White House; the Judiciary Committee said the investigation should be limited to “current, credible allegations,” although it was unclear what those entailed.

It was also not clear whether the FBI would investigate a series of allegations made by a third woman, Julie Swetnick, who has said that she witnessed a severely drunken Kavanaugh mistreat women at parties in high school and that he was present at parties where high school boys gang-raped teenage girls.

“We have yet to hear from the FBI. When and if we do, we will promptly disclose to them all information and witnesses in our possession,” Michael Avenatti, a lawyer for Swetnick, said Saturday on Twitter. “We continue to request this opportunity as we have been doing for days.”

Kavanaugh has also forcefully denied the allegations by Swetnick, calling them completely false and ridiculous.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pressed Saturday for an even broader investigation, writing in a letter to the chairman of the Judiciary Committee that the FBI should examine whether Kavanaugh lied to senators during his testimony.

“A fundamental question the FBI can help answer is whether Kavanaugh has been truthful with the committee. This goes to the very heart of whether he should be confirmed to the court,” Sanders wrote in the letter to the chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. Some opponents of Kavanaugh have questioned statements he made about his youthful drinking and his high school yearbook.

Sanders is unlikely to get his wish. In a statement Friday announcing that he had requested the FBI inquiry, Trump said that it must be “limited in scope and completed in less than one week.”

It is clear, however, that Blasey’s accusations will be part of the new background investigation as agents try to determine who is telling the truth about what — if anything — happened between her and Kavanaugh.

During his testimony, Kavanaugh repeatedly said Keyser, and two other people, had disputed Blasey’s allegations. Blasey had said that two of them were in the house and that one of them — Judge, who said Friday that he would cooperate with the FBI investigation — was in the room at the time of the alleged assault.

“Dr. Ford’s allegation is not merely uncorroborated, it is refuted by the very people she says were there, including by a longtime friend of hers,” Kavanaugh said Thursday.

During the hearing, Blasey said she did not expect that Keyser would remember the gathering because Keyser was in another part of the house when the assault is said to have taken place. She told the senators that it was “a very unremarkable party” for Keyser. She also said that Keyser “has significant health challenges.”

“She let me know that she needed her lawyer to take care of this for her, and she texted me right afterward with an apology and good wishes,” she said.

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