Written by Sheryl Gay Stolberg
As the FBI began looking into allegations of sexual assault against then-Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings last year, a Democratic senator wrote to the director of the FBI saying he had “information relevant” to the inquiry, but the bureau apparently failed to follow up.
The letter, sent early last October by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., to Christopher A. Wray, the FBI director, has come to light after a forthcoming book by two New York Times reporters surfaced a new allegation of sexual impropriety by a young Kavanaugh.
The revelations have reopened the bitter partisan debate over the confirmation of Kavanaugh, just as he is coming up on his anniversary of his ascension to the Supreme Court, and raised fresh questions about how the FBI, under the direction of the White House, handled its investigation of the nominee.
Democrats, then and now, argue that the inquiry was insufficient and geared more toward clearing President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick than toward uncovering the truth. Some of them, including several presidential candidates, seized on the new information Monday to call for Kavanaugh’s impeachment, or a new inquiry into the investigation that preceded his confirmation.
In his correspondence, Coons told Wray that he and his colleagues had heard from several people who wanted to share information about Kavanaugh, but “have had difficulty reaching anybody who will collect their information.”
The FBI inquiry marked an extraordinary turn in the nomination of Kavanaugh, who appeared to be on a smooth path toward confirmation until Christine Blasey Ford, a California professor, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had groped her and pinned her onto a bed when the two were teenagers in suburban Maryland. Trump, under pressure from then-Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and a member of the Judiciary Committee whose vote would be crucial to confirming Kavanaugh, ordered a one-week inquiry.
In his letter to Wray, Coons told the FBI director that several people had come to him with additional allegations. In particular, he asked Wray for “appropriate follow-up” with a former Yale University classmate of Kavanaugh’s who had information that might have buttressed a claim by another classmate, Deborah Ramirez. Ramirez had alleged that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her during a drunken dormitory party in 1983, their freshman year.
The bureau pledged to look into the Ramirez allegations, but Kavanaugh’s detractors pointed to the Coons letter as evidence that her claims were given short shrift, and that corroborating witnesses were ignored. Some went so far on Monday as to call for impeachment proceedings to be initiated, though Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, reacted coolly to the idea.
Trump and other backers of the justice furiously defended him, and excoriated The Times, which published an essay in its Sunday opinion pages by the authors of the new book, “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation,” by reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly. Theirs is one of a spate of forthcoming books about the Kavanaugh confirmation.
“What’s happening to Justice Kavanaugh is a disgrace,” Trump wrote on Twitter, quoting the conservative commentator Dan Bongino, who appeared on the president’s favorite television program, “Fox and Friends.” “This guy is not a good man, he is a great man. He has to go to his church with his family while these terrible reports are being written about him, a disgrace!”
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate majority leader, who is one of the leading architects of Trump’s transformation of the federal judiciary, called the new accusations part of a “deliberate effort to attack judicial independence” by Democrats.
“There they go again, Mr. President. There they go again,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “Senate Democrats reopening the sad and embarrassing chapter they wrote last September. The latest allegation was blasted out by a major newspaper despite the apparent lack of any, any corroborating evidence whatsoever.”
In a copy of Coons’ letter obtained by The New York Times, the name of classmate with information about Kavanaugh is redacted, but a spokesman for Coons, Sean Coit, confirmed that the classmate was Max Stier, who runs the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington nonprofit. Stier, whose resume includes a stint as one of the lawyers who defended former President Bill Clinton during his impeachment, was first identified in the book by Pogrebin and Kelly.
“I cannot speak to the relevance or veracity of the information that many of these individuals seek to provide, and I have encouraged them to use the FBI tip portal or contact a regional FBI field office,” Coons wrote, adding, “However, there is one individual whom I would like to specifically refer to you for appropriate follow-up.”
The FBI acknowledged receiving the letter from Coons. The two top senators on the Judiciary Committee at the time — Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and the top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California — were copied on the letter.
Grassley insisted in a speech on the Senate floor Monday that his “office never received anything from Mr. Stier or his unnamed friends, and we never received an allegation against Kavanaugh like the one referenced in the report over the weekend.”
Feinstein told reporters that “the FBI did not do the investigations that we had hoped they would do,” adding, “we do need to clear this up.”
In their book, Pogrebin and Kelly write that Stier saw Kavanaugh expose himself to another female student at a different alcohol-soaked party, where friends pushed his penis into the woman’s hand. Stier reported the incident to the FBI and to senators, according to the excerpt published in Sunday opinion section of The Times.
The authors have not said whether they interviewed Stier. An early version of the essay failed to note that the female student declined to be interviewed and that friends of the alleged victim have said she did not recall the episode. The newspaper later updated the article to include that information, which exposed The Times to sharp criticism from Republicans.
“The New York Times withheld crucial facts that undercuts its own reporting,” Grassley, who presided over the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings when he was Judiciary Committee chairman, said Monday on the Senate floor. “We now have an uncorroborated accusation, rooted only in unnamed sources with no direct knowledge of the event and that the alleged victim doesn’t even remember.”
Kelly, speaking on behalf of both women, said that while she would “take issue” with Grassley’s “characterization,” she “can’t get into who our sources were” to protect their confidentiality.
Democrats, though, argued that his account echoed the incident Ramirez described.
“There should certainly be a full, fair investigation, as was never done at the time,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “It was a sham, as we said then, and there should be a full inquiry now.”
In their book, Pogrebin and Kelly recount an episode in which Coons, deeply frustrated about the scope of the inquiry, called the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, on his cellphone to complain. McGahn told the senator that the investigation would be conducted “by the book.”
“So I said, ‘Don, thank you, this is great. Send me the book,’” the authors quoted Coons as saying. In an interview Monday, Coons said that he felt then, and still feels, that the inquiry was inadequate, adding that it “turned out to be a brief, cramped and narrow additional investigation.”
Despite the calls for Kavanaugh’s impeachment from the left, Democrats in Congress who could investigate and initiate proceedings to try to remove him from the court, signaled they were cool to the idea Monday.
Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told WNYC in New York that he viewed the FBI’s background investigation as a “sham” and said he planned to ask Wray about it when he appeared for a regular oversight hearing next month. But Nadler did not promise any additional action before then.
Nadler had promised last year, around the time of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, that he would use his panel to conduct a full-scale investigation of the accusations against the nominee if Democrats won control of the House.
But Monday, he said, “It’s too early to form a judgment one way or another,” about a possible case against Kavanaugh, adding, “Frankly, we are concentrating our resources on whether to impeach the president.”