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Kavanaugh Pledges To Be 'Independent, Impartial' If Confirmed As Senators Weigh Votes

Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on September 27.
Getty Images
Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on September 27.

Updated at 10:12 p.m. ET

Judge Brett Kavanaugh issued a mea culpa of sorts on the eve of a key Senate vote that could determine whether or not he reaches the Supreme Court, admitting in an op-ed that his testimony last week forcefully defending himself from sexual assault allegations "might have been too emotional at times."

"I know that my tone was sharp, and I said a few things I should not have said. I hope everyone can understand that I was there as a son, husband and dad. I testified with five people foremost in my mind: my mom, my dad, my wife, and most of all my daughters," Kavanaugh wrote Thursday evening in the op-ed published online by Wall Street Journal.

Last Thursday in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Christine Blasey Ford said Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her while the two were in high school more than three decades ago. Speaking after Ford, Kavanaugh angrily and tearfully denied ever committing any sexual misconduct, but he acknowledged that there had been times when he had too much to drink as a high school and college student.

And Kavanaugh had also cast the allegations against him in boldly partisan terms, saying that the multiple accusations were a "calculated and orchestrated political hit" that was "fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election... and revenge on behalf of the Clintons."

Those sharp words had led many Democratic senators, along with other political and legal observers, to conclude he didn't have the right temperament to sit on the nation's highest court — an impression Kavanaugh sought to address in the op-ed.

"Going forward, you can count on me to be the same kind of judge and person I have been for my entire 28-year legal career: hardworking, even-keeled, open-minded, independent and dedicated to the Constitution and the public good," Kavanaugh writes, recalling how in his speech upon his nomination by President Trump in July he said that "a good judge must be an umpire—a neutral and impartial arbiter who favors no political party, litigant or policy."

"I revere the Constitution. I believe that an independent and impartial judiciary is essential to our constitutional republic. If confirmed by the Senate to serve on the Supreme Court, I will keep an open mind in every case and always strive to preserve the Constitution of the United States and the American rule of law," Kavanaugh promises in concluding his op-ed.

That pledge of neutrality seems centrally aimed at wooing key Republican senators who have been withholding judgment on Kavanaugh's nomination. But Democrats quickly pushed back that it wasn't enough.

"That testimony was written, carefully prepared, planned, premeditated — not some emotional outburst," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee said on CNN.

The Palm Beach Post also reported earlier Thursday that retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens told a group of retirees that there was "merit" to criticism that Kavanaugh "has demonstrated a potential bias involving enough potential [litigation] before the court that he would not be able to perform his full responsibilities."

Before Kavanaugh's op-ed on Thursday, critical undecided senators had signaled that the supplemental inquiry by the FBI into those allegations had been "thorough." While not announcing how they would vote, they did not signal further reservations about Kavanaugh.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told reporters after reviewing the report, "It appears to be a very thorough investigation, but I am going back later today to personally read the interviews."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, walks on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. A key vote on Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination, she said Thursday that the FBI investigation seemed "very thorough."
Alex Brandon / AP
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, walks on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. A key vote on Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination, she said Thursday that the FBI investigation seemed "very thorough."

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who insisted on the further investigation before allowing Kavanaugh's nomination to advance out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also said the report was thorough and indicated that no new evidence had emerged to corroborate the claims against Kavanaugh.

Their votes are seen as decisive, along with that of GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. When the agreement to have the FBI do an additional background check on the Supreme Court nominee was reached last week, Flake indicated that he would vote in support of Kavanaugh absent new information. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin is also undecided.

Two other undecided senators declared their intentions on Thursday. Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, a Trump critic who is retiring, announced he would vote for Kavanaugh. North Dakota Democrat Heiki Heitkamp, facing a tough re-election battle in a conservative state, announced she would oppose the nomination in an interview with WDAY, a television station in Fargo.

Senators — and a few Republican and Democratic aides with proper clearances — are allowed to read a single copy of the FBI report in a secure room at the Capitol in alternating one-hour shifts.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was one of the senators who said she reviewed the material.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, arrives at the Office of Senate Security to view the FBI's supplementary report on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Aaron P. Bernstein / Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, arrives at the Office of Senate Security to view the FBI's supplementary report on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said that regardless of the findings of the FBI investigation, the Senate will vote this week on whether to end debate on Kavanaugh. That is expected Friday morning.

If that vote passes and the Senate agrees to close the discussion about Kavanaugh, it starts a 30-hour clock that would end with another vote on whether he should take the open seat on the Supreme Court.

That final vote is expected to take place sometime over the weekend. Both votes need a simple majority to pass. The chamber is sharply divided so Republicans need as much support as they can get, but it isn't yet clear how many senators will vote for Kavanaugh.

At a rally Thursday evening in Minnesota, Trump expressed confidence that Kavanaugh would still be confirmed, calling him an incredible intellect, an incredible person and an incredible talent." The crowd broke out into cheers of "We want Kavanaugh!" and "Vote him in!"

Trump didn't mock Ford's testimony — as he had at a rally Tuesday night — but did argue Democrats were beginning to see negative political ramifications from the protracted fight over Kavanaugh, especially in the battle for the Senate. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll this week found that Democrats' enthusiasm gap just ahead of the midterms had evaporated while once dormant GOP engagement was surging.

Trump seemed to reference that poll and others that had similar findings in a tweet earlier on Thursday, and then told the crowd that Democrats would pay for their obstruction at the polls.

"All you have to do is look at the polls over the last three or four days and it shows that [Democrats'] rage-fueled resistance is starting to backfire at a level that nobody's ever seen before," Trump told the Minnesota crowd.

Three women have accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct decades ago, allegations he has strongly and emotionally denied.

Those allegations have drawn out Kavanaugh's nomination process, which a few weeks ago seemed on course for a swift confirmation.

Under the agreement that paused action on the nomination, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to recommend Kavanaugh's nomination to the full chamber on the condition that the FBI get seven days to look into the misconduct charges.

Special agents have been at work since then, talking with people in the case. A White House official confirmed that the FBI had interviewed nine people. The official, who asked not to be identified, declined to name the people, saying that background investigations are confidential.

NPR has confirmed six people whom the FBI interviewed as part of its investigation: Kavanaugh's high school friends P.J. Smyth, Mark Judge, Tim Gaudette and Chris Garrett; Ford's friend Leland Keyser; and a second Kavanaugh accuser, Deborah Ramirez.

Ford, who is a professor in California, was not interviewed by the FBI, her lawyers say. Kavanaugh had not been questioned either, Feinstein said.

Ramirez provided a list of around 20 names to the FBI of people who she says either witnessed Kavanaugh's alleged sexual misconduct or heard about it contemporaneously. Her legal team says the FBI did not contact those individuals.

The FBI has declined to comment on the investigation.

Partisan dispute over the inquiry

The scope of the investigation has become the latest political battle in the larger war over Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court.

Democrats have accused Republicans and the White House of putting extreme limits on the FBI's work.

"This looks to be the product of an incomplete investigation, I don't know," Feinstein told reporters on Thursday morning.

GOP lawmakers and the administration say the FBI was empowered to look at all "credible" allegations against Kavanaugh.

It remains unclear what specific parameters the White House put on the investigation — whether, for example, it may have established any restrictions of its own or whether it simply applied those from Senate Republicans in making the assignment to the FBI.

In other words, the question is whether the White House went along with establishing guardrails for the FBI that were set by McConnell even if no White House official set them.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., complained to reporters that he thought the whole process involved with the vetting of Kavanaugh had been "greatly constrained."

The Senate majority leader, McConnell, rejected that, along with all the allegations against Kavanaugh in a speech on Thursday morning.

He and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said that the FBI has established that Kavanaugh has been telling the truth all along and that the time has come to install him on the high court.

"Fundamentally, we senators ought to wipe away the muck from all the mudslinging and politics and look at this nomination with clear eyes," Grassley said. "Judge Kavanaugh is one of the most qualified nominees to ever come before the Senate."

Battle royal

Federal judges are at the heart of the political strategy pursued for years by McConnell and President Trump, and the stakes are never higher than when they involve a vacancy on the Supreme Court.

So Republicans eagerly want to confirm Kavanaugh and need every vote they can get in a closely divided Senate chamber. That is why when Flake suggested the price for his support might be the weeklong pause to permit an investigation, Republican leaders had no choice but to agree.

Democrats not only oppose Kavanaugh, but they also remain deeply embittered by the experience that closed out the tenure of President Barack Obama, when McConnell refused to schedule a vote on Obama's nominee for a Supreme Court vacancy that Trump eventually got to fill.

Accordingly, the war over Kavanaugh was always going to be caustic and protracted even before sexual assault allegations surfaced against him. But they escalated the drama to another level by involving the ongoing national reckoning over sexual assault and the #MeToo movement.

The accusers

In her congressional hearing last week, Ford told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when he was drunk at a small social gathering during summer vacation when they were in high school.

Ramirez, who is a former classmate of Kavanaugh's at Yale, said Kavanaugh drunkenly exposed himself. And a third women, Julie Swetnick, has said she was raped at a party that Kavanaugh attended with his boyhood friend Mark Judge. It was one of a number of parties at which Swetnick says girls were targeted with alcohol for sexual abuse or rape.

Kavanaugh angrily and tearfully denied ever committing any sexual misconduct, but he acknowledged to the Judiciary Committee that there had been times when he had too much to drink as a high school and college student.

The picture that has formed of him since then in the press has been of a hard-partying prep school athlete and Yale frat boy. Kavanaugh's former classmates say they saw him so drunk so often they hold open the possibility that he might have blacked out during his high school and college days.

Complicating matters further is the presence of attorney Michael Avenatti, who is representing Swetnick. He is avowedly anti-Trump and has been a foe of the White House since filing a lawsuit against the president on behalf of adult film actress Stormy Daniels.

Trump and Judiciary Committee Republicans have singled out Avenatti over his past work targeting the president and also argued that Swetnick is not a credible accuser.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
Arnie Seipel
Arnie Seipel is the Deputy Washington Editor for NPR. He oversees daily news coverage of politics and the inner workings of the federal government. Prior to this role, he edited politics coverage for seven years, leading NPR's reporting on the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections. In between campaigns, Seipel edited coverage of Congress and the White House, and he coordinated coverage of major events including State of the Union addresses, Supreme Court confirmations and congressional hearings.
Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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