Trump orders FBI probe into allegations against Brett Kavanaugh
Move follows committee request for probe into 'current credible' claims against Supreme Court nominee
U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has cleared a key procedural hurdle, but his confirmation prospects remained deeply uncertain on Friday as President Donald Trump ordered a new FBI investigation into the sexual assault allegations levelled against his nominee.
Although the Senate's judiciary committee voted to advance Kavanaugh's nomination to a vote on the Senate floor, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake — the Republican swing vote on the committee — made his vote contingent on a new, week-long probe into sexual misconduct allegations against the candidate.
That forced the Republican-controlled committee to ask Trump to open a probe limited to what it called "current credible allegations against the nominee." Trump in a statement said the investigation "must be limited in scope" and "completed in less than one week."
The final full Senate vote to confirm Kavanaugh would come after the investigation, which would be completed by Oct. 5.
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Friday's committee vote fell entirely along party lines — 11 Republicans for, 10 Democrats against — for Trump's nominee.
As senators requested the new probe, Kavanaugh said in a statement that he would continue to co-operate with Senate inquiries related to his nomination process. Since his nomination in July, the appellate judge has seen his almost certain path to the top court threatened after three women came forward publicly with allegations of sexual misconduct.
While Trump granted the supplemental probe on Friday, he has previously vehemently defended him as a nominee and extolled his character and qualifications.
"Just started, tonight, our 7th FBI investigation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh," tweeted Trump late Friday, referring to previous FBI vetting processes carried out over the course of Kavanaugh's career.
The committee had little time to review Thursday's remarkable testimony from Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were high school students. But Republicans and the White House had been eager to push the nominee through before the next Supreme Court session begins on Oct. 1.
Debra Katz, one of Ford's lawyers, said her client welcomed an FBI probe into the sexual assault allegations, although she said "No artificial limits as to time or scope should be imposed on this investigation."
If Kavanaugh is confirmed for the Supreme Court, he could be the deciding vote on several contentious cases, with disputes involving abortion, immigration, gay rights, voting rights and transgender troops possibly heading toward the justices soon. Confirming Kavanaugh, a federal appeals court judge, would cement conservative control of the country's highest court.
Flake, a committee member who hadn't previously tipped his hand about his vote, released a statement Friday morning indicating he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh. Flake, who is not running for re-election in November, said that while he left the Thursday hearing "with as much doubt as certainty" as to what may have occurred in the 1980s concerning Kavanaugh and Ford, "the presumption of innocence" compels him to vote Yes.
Just hours before he called for the delay and the investigation, Flake was confronted in an elevator by two female protesters who said they were victims of sexual assault.
"Look at me and tell me that it doesn't matter what happened to me," one of the women said. "That's what you're telling all women in America — that they don't matter, they should just keep it to themselves."
Watch as protesters confront Sen. Jeff Flake:
Ford's allegations have thrown the outcome of Kavanaugh's nomination — once believed by many to be a sure bet — in doubt in the 51-49 Republican-controlled Senate. Assuming all Democrats vote against his nomination — which is likely, but not a sure thing — two Republicans would need to vote No to deny the nomination, as Vice-President Mike Pence would break a 50-50 tie in Kavanaugh's favour.
Flake was among a small number of senators not publicly resolved in their positions. On Friday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — both Republicans and potential deciding votes on Kavanaugh's nomination — said they supported the new probe.
While Collins said the deal "is an important development and I believe it will let us go forward," while Murkowski said she wanted to make sure senators "do our due diligence."
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Before Flake's appeal Republicans had hoped a procedural vote could occur over the weekend, with a full 100-member Senate vote as early as Tuesday. Thirty hours must pass between a procedural vote and debate's end.
After the committee vote time was established on Friday morning, Democrats Kamala Harris, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii left the session room in protest.
"We have done a botch of an investigation," said Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.
Republicans continued to focus on not being made aware of Ford's allegations until several weeks after they were first brought to the attention of a Democratic member of Congress in July. Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana called the confirmation process "an intergalactic freak show."
He said, she said hearing
Attention to Kavanaugh's nomination process has moved far beyond the world of Washington politics. Ford has emerged in the eyes of many American women as a compelling figure in the #MeToo movement.
Her voice sometimes cracking with emotion, Ford appeared in public for the first time on Thursday to detail her allegations against Kavanaugh. She testified she was "100 per cent certain" that Kavanaugh assaulted her in 1982.
Ford told the committee she feared Kavanaugh would rape and accidentally kill her during the alleged assault.
"Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes," she told the committee. "I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help."
Watch the key moments from Thursday's testimony:
Kavanaugh angrily said he was innocent and the victim of "grotesque and obvious character assassination."
Several Republican members said a day later that they believed Ford had been assaulted sometime during the decade. But they said either that they didn't believe or couldn't establish that Kavanaugh was the perpetrator.
On Friday morning, Democrats unsuccessfully tried to subpoena Mark Judge, a friend of Kavanaugh's from the 1980s who has been mentioned in allegations by Ford and a third woman, Julie Swetnick.
Judge has previously said he did not witness the events as described by Ford in her testimony, but on Friday said he would co-operate with any law enforcement agency that will "confidentially investigate" sexual misconduct allegations against him and Kavanaugh.
With files from Reuters and The Associated Press