The FBI’s investigation into sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh has turbocharged the partisan passions surrounding the appellate judge’s Supreme Court nomination and fueled even uglier divisions in the Senate. And, up to this point, it’s left the public in the dark.
From the moment it was announced last week that the Senate was going to put off a vote on the nomination to allow the FBI to extend its background check to include the new allegations, there has been bitter debate over the extent of probe, its goals and the FBI’s authority to define it.
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Democrats say the fact that the FBI apparently interviewed fewer than 10 people — and did not speak to accuser Christine Blasey Ford or Kavanaugh himself — proves the whole process was a “sham.”
Republicans say the report, which lawmakers and the White House argued should be narrowly focused on specific claims and limited to individuals who could address them, did not corroborate the allegations against the judge.
Former law enforcement and FBI officials, meanwhile, say the inquiry, shrouded in mystery and driven by the White House, has once again left the bureau exposed to partisan sniping. And they say the secrecy around the report, shown to lawmakers Thursday in secure rooms usually reserved for classified briefings, potentially put the FBI’s credibility at risk before the American public.
“I think there are going to be long-term implications for the FBI, for Kavanaugh, and for the court if he’s confirmed on the back of such a suspect investigation,” said Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman under President Barack Obama.
“What you have at the end of the day is a report that is tainted, suspect and inadequate,” said Gene Rossi, a former Justice Department official.
The center of partisan crossfire is an increasingly familiar position for the FBI. The bureau has been a piñata for President Donald Trump and his allies this year amid heavily disputed allegations that anti-Trump bias seeped into the bureau’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
This time, it’s Democrats raising questions about whether political interference by the Republican White House has tainted the bureau’s work.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), one of the few Democrats who had not said whether she’d vote for Kavanaugh as of Thursday morning, announced she’d oppose his nomination, in part because of a “horribly handled” process.
Among other confusion about the probe, the White House’s mixed messages about its own role in the investigation have helped fuel the sense that the bureau was limited in what it could pursue.
Initially, the White House and the Senate instructed the FBI to interview four witnesses. Then, The New York Times reported Monday that the White House told the FBI it could interview anyone necessary, as long as the process was completed by the end of the week.
But on Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders implied in comments to reporters that the FBI didn’t need to interview Ford, who says Kavanaugh assaulted her when they were both in high school, or the judge because both had already testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Meanwhile, an attorney for another accuser, Deborah Ramirez, has said the FBI didn’t follow up on her recommendations of people to interview about her claim that Kavanaugh exposed himself and caused her to touch his penis without her consent during a dorm party at Yale University.
“One of the basic tenets of investigation 101 is to interview your complainant and to eventually interview your subject,” said Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence. “The fact that that hasn’t happened in this case raises serious concerns about the validity of the investigation and the constraints put on the FBI by the White House.”
But Tom Fuentes, former assistant director of the FBI, said the agency may have determined that an interview with Ford was not necessary, given that she testified under oath. Ramirez, who did not testify, was interviewed.
“There’s really no need to go back,” Fuentes said. “If she was in fact not interviewed, the FBI in their judgment thought there was … nothing else to ask her.”
Some ex-FBI officials said the partisan fallout from the report’s release was inevitable.
“This was going to be viewed through a partisan prism, a partisan lens, from the outset,” James Gagliano, a former FBI agent, told POLITICO. “Whatever they found, it was not going to be good enough. We’re all seeking one of two things. … You’re seeking either corroboration of the allegation or exoneration of Judge Kavanaugh. In my humble estimation, you are not going to get either.”