WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic U.S. senators expressed concern on Sunday over reports the White House was working with Republicans to narrow the scope of an FBI investigation into sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
President Donald Trump bowed to pressure from moderate Senate Republicans on Friday and ordered the probe after Christine Blasey Ford, a California university professor, detailed her allegations at a Senate hearing that Kavanaugh assaulted her in 1982 when the two were teenagers in high school.
The stunning reversal capped two weeks of allegations, followed by furious denials, that roiled prospects for Trump’s nominee, a conservative federal appeals court judge once expected to sail through Senate confirmation for the lifetime appointment to the top U.S. court.
Kavanaugh has denied Ford’s accusation, as well as those of two other women that emerged afterward.
Republicans, who are trying to retain control of the U.S. Congress in November elections, are seeking to balance their desire to have a conservative judge on the Supreme Court with sensitivity in how they handle the sexual misconduct allegations amid the reverberations of the #MeToo movement.
It did not take long, however, for the FBI probe itself to become an object of partisan divide.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the White House had defined the parameters of the probe for the FBI, and that the investigation would start off with interviews with only four people.
NBC News, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal previously reported that the White House was constraining the investigation, prompting Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee to express concern.
“The White House should not be allowed to micromanage an FBI investigation,” Senator Amy Klobuchar said on Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“Betraying commitment to a real investigation, Republicans apparently are trying to cripple it with a sham, check-the-box set of interviews. What are they hiding?” Senator Richard Blumenthal said in a Twitter post.
The White House denied it was trying to control the probe, which the Senate Judiciary Committee said on Friday “would be limited to current credible allegations” and wrapped up within a week.
“We’re staying out of the way” and letting the FBI do their job,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday.”
But the White House made clear there would be limits to the probe. “It’s not meant to be a fishing expedition,” White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Trump vowed on Saturday that the FBI could interview “whoever they deem appropriate.” On Sunday, he criticized Democrats for expressing concerns about the length and scope of the probe.
“For them, it will never be enough!” he wrote on Twitter.
The FBI will question Deborah Ramirez, who said Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party when both were students at Yale University, the White House official told Reuters.
It will also question Mark Judge, a friend of Kavanaugh who Ford said witnessed the assault, and Leland Keyser and P.J. Smyth, who she said were at the gathering.
A third accuser, Julie Swetnick, was not on the initial list of witnesses to be interviewed.
Senate Republicans compiled the list of four witnesses, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell shared it with the White House, the official and another source familiar with the matter told Reuters.
The New York Times, citing people familiar with the matter, reported that the White House asked the FBI to share its findings after the initial interviews and that Trump and his advisers would then decide whether the accusations should be investigated further.
Neither the FBI nor a Judiciary Committee representative would comment on the probe.
Senator Susan Collins, who was among a handful of Republican moderates who had pushed for the investigation, said in an email: “I am confident that the FBI will follow up on any leads that result from the interviews.”
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said it would not unlawful for the White House to restrict the investigation’s scope. “The FBI is under the executive branch so the president ultimately has authority to control some of what goes on,” he said.
But Tobias said FBI agents were usually allowed to act independently and that it would be a “clear conflict of interest” for White House officials involved in Kavanaugh’s confirmation process to interfere with the FBI’s investigation.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu and John Walcott; Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe and Patrick Rucker in Washington and Karen Freifeld in New York; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Peter Cooney