WASHINGTON — Senators nervously awaited the arrival of a new FBI report on sexual allegations that could make or break Brett Kavanaugh’s tottering Supreme Court nomination Wednesday as aggressive protesters and an unusually strong security response added to a feeling of high anxiety inside the U.S. Capitol.
As lawmakers anticipated the report, three key GOP senators who could decide the conservative jurist’s fate rebuked President Donald Trump for mocking one accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, by mimicking her responses to questions at last week’s dramatic Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Their reactions left Republicans concerned that President Trump had complicated their effort to cement Kavanaugh’s support in a chamber where the GOP holds a razor-thin 51-49 majority. Depending on when the FBI report arrived, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was expected to trigger a process that could lead to a crucial initial vote Friday and a climactic confirmation roll call over the weekend.
Inside the Capitol, mounting political strains over the approaching election-season showdown were mirrored by growing anxieties over senators’ security following frequent and at times aggressive demonstrations by anti-Kavanaugh protesters. Unusually large numbers of Capitol Hill Police officers restricted movements in corridors and formed wedges around senators walking through hallways. Some lawmakers also complained of being confronted outside their homes.
On the Senate floor, McConnell, R-Ky., claimed the protesters were “part of the organized effort” to derail Kavanaugh’s nomination and said, “There is no chance in the world that they’re going to scare us out of doing our duty.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told reporters that President Trump’s Tuesday night lampooning of Ford at a Mississippi campaign rally was “just plain wrong.” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, called it “wholly inappropriate and in my view unacceptable,” and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said on NBC’s “Today” show that the remarks were “kind of appalling.”
Those GOP senators, along with Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have yet to declare how they will vote on Kavanaugh. Other Republicans conceded that President Trump’s insults could be damaging.
“All of us need to keep in mind there’s a few people that are on the fence right now. And right now, that’s sort of where our focus needs to be,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who has traded barbs with President Trump and will retire at year’s end.
Even President Trump ally Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said at an event hosted by The Atlantic magazine: “I would tell him, knock it off. You’re not helping,”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said President Trump’s insults of Ford marked a “new low.”
President Trump drew laughs from supporters at a rally Tuesday night with his rendition of how Ford answered questions at last week’s hearing. “I had one beer — that’s the only thing I remember,” he stated inaccurately.
As he flew aboard Air Force One to the Mississippi rally, President Trump was enraged by New York Times articles about Kavanaugh’s high school and college years and alleging tax avoidance efforts by the president and his family, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Wednesday echoed the president’s newly aggressive approach. She said Ford has “been treated like a Fabergé egg by all of us, beginning with me and the president,” and said President Trump was merely “pointing out factual inconsistencies.”
The California psychology professor has testified that a drunken Kavanaugh sexually abused her in a locked room at a high school party in the 1980s and has said she believed he was trying to rape her. Kavanaugh has denied her assertions and those of two other women, who have accused him of other instances of sexual misconduct in the 1980s.
Ford’s attorney complained Wednesday that the FBI has not contacted her for this week’s interviews. And Democrats argued that the investigation has been insufficient, lacking interviews with her, with Kavanaugh and others who Kavanaugh’s accusers have said could have knowledge about the alleged incidents.
Also Wednesday, the National Council of Churches, a large organization of Christian denominations, said Kavanaugh should step aside after showing “extreme partisan bias” at his confirmation hearing. The group said Kavanaugh has “neither the temperament nor the character” needed for the high court.
Lawmakers said that once the FBI report arrived, senators and a small number of top aides would be allowed to read it in a secure room in the Capitol complex. Preparations were under way for senators to sign up for time slots to review the document in the secure facility. Republicans have said they are working under an agreement governing background checks dating from the Obama administration, under which investigations are confidential and closely held.
Sens. Corker and Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said senators were expecting reports that FBI agents compile on their interviews with subjects, perhaps accompanied by a cover letter. But background checks do not traditionally contain investigators’ conclusions about who they believe is credible.
Washington has been awaiting completion of the investigation since last week, when Flake, Collins and Murkowski pressured a reluctant President Trump and GOP leaders to order the FBI to renew its background check of the 53-year-old Kavanaugh.
The FBI interviewed several people, including three who Ford has said attended a 1982 high school gathering in suburban Maryland where she says Kavanaugh’s attack occurred, plus another Kavanaugh friend. The agency has also spoken to a second woman, Deborah Ramirez, who has claimed Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a Yale party when both were freshmen.
While some senators from both parties have said they’d like at least a summary of the findings to be released, Senate procedures call for such checks to be kept confidential and it’s unclear what will be released, other than through leaks.
“None of that stuff’s public,” Judiciary panel Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters. “If you want people to be candid when they talk to the FBI, you ain’t going to make that public.”
In an interview, No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois said McConnell was “hell bent on getting this done” this week.
Democrats also demanded that the FBI privately brief the Senate about the investigation before the chamber votes. McConnell rejected that request in a letter Wednesday to Schumer, saying Democrats would use it to delay Kavanaugh’s confirmation.