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Kavanaugh Probe Needs To Go Beyond Initial Scope, Sen. Coons Says


The pause in the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh amounts to an opportunity. It's an opportunity for the Senate to make its confirmation process seem more credible to those who felt it was not. The FBI is taking a week to examine allegations that the nominee committed sexual assault and other misconduct decades ago. Now comes the question of whether the investigation itself will be seen as credible. The FBI is acting at the direction of the White House, where presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway insisted the White House is not restricting the investigation.


KELLYANNE CONWAY: The president very much respects the independence of the FBI and feels, as he said last night, that they should be looking at anything that they think is credible within this limited scope.

INSKEEP: We've called Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He worked with Republican Jeff Flake, whose request for a delay on Friday ensured that it happened.

Senator, welcome to the program.

CHRIS COONS: Thanks, Steve. Great to be on with you.

INSKEEP: How full does this investigation have to be to satisfy you?

COONS: It's got to be well beyond the initial very narrow scope of four witnesses - four individuals being interviewed. It's got to have a week full of opportunities for the FBI to follow up on things that, in the hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday, were obviously before us. So documents, for example, like the calendar the Judge Kavanaugh put forward - I would expect the FBI would be able to then go interview people who appeared on that calendar and ask them about the events that he said would clear his name.

Dr. Ford, she mentioned other things.

INSKEEP: Oh, Christine Blasey Ford, the main accuser, of course - go on.

COONS: Correct. There's also individuals who are already known in the public as having allegedly been part of these incidents. And there were other allegations against Judge Kavanaugh that need to be pursued. It's my understanding Deborah Ramirez has already been interviewed.

INSKEEP: You mentioned four witnesses. There have been reports saying that the FBI was only cleared to interview the four. But President Trump has said, I want the FBI to have free rein. The White House has said they're doing whatever the Senate wants. The Senate has said - Senate leaders have said they want a limited investigation. Do you feel you have a clear and accurate understanding of what the FBI's mandate really is?

COONS: No. I think there's a real tension between the very broad public statements of President Trump and Kellyanne Conway and press reports and then what I've understood from colleagues I've spoken to over the weekend. I'm working hard to encourage my colleagues in the Senate, principally Jeff Flake from Arizona but others, to speak up and to say the whole point of this week is not to have an open-ended or an endless investigation but a credible, short but purposeful investigation of the sexual assault allegations against Judge Kavanaugh that are in front of the Senate now.

INSKEEP: You and Jeff Flake were together on "60 Minutes" last night. You both said that if it's shown that Kavanaugh did not tell the truth in his testimony, then his nomination is effectively over. Well, he's already been accused of a stream of doubtful characterizations about his drinking, about the meaning of acts described in his high school yearbook and calendar. Has he already crossed that line, Senator?

COONS: Well, that's the point of having the FBI further investigate - is for them to question people, to present those facts and then for the Senate to reach a conclusion.

INSKEEP: Meaning that you think it's possible, but you're not deciding yet that he did lie.

COONS: I think it's entirely possible. Frankly, speaking for myself, I thought the tone that Judge Kavanaugh used, the very explicit partisan attacks on the Senate - and in particular, on the Senate Democrats - really did not show a judicial temperament. He would have been better suited to leave those sharp and partisan attacks against Senate Democrats to his advocates on the committee.

INSKEEP: Although we should be frank, Senator, Republicans, of course, have accused Democrats of extreme partisanship here. They don't like the way that these allegations were revealed. They don't like the demands for further investigation. And your colleague Lindsey Graham - your Republican colleague Lindsey Graham, in his speech - or explosion, really, when he was quite angry during the testimony on Thursday, said of Democrats, quote, "what you want to do is destroy this guy's life, hold his seat open and hope you win in 2020."

I'd like to ask directly, is that your objective - to keep the Supreme Court seat open for years, if necessary, until Democrats can install someone you like?

COONS: That's not my goal. And I found Senator Graham's outburst really both out of character and unfortunately contributed to what has been a sharply partisan divide on the committee. I think part of what made Senator Flake join me in my call for a week-long pause was his concern that this hearing and this environment is not just tearing apart our committee and the Senate but reflects a way in which we're tearing the country apart.

Look; the real hero in all this I think is Dr. Ford, who came forward with allegations when she had nothing to gain and everything to lose. I think this one-week pause is a reasonable bipartisan gesture not to keep this nomination open indefinitely but to show that we took seriously enough Dr. Ford's allegation to actually investigate.

INSKEEP: Well, let me just ask, though, in about 30 seconds or so, Senator. If you're presented with a candidate for this position who you extremely disagree with on the issues but Kavanaugh is cleared or someone comes after him who has a clean record or is seen to have a clean record, are you going to say yes even though we just lost? The process is fair. It's fine. Republicans won. They got their justice. Are you going to accept that process?

COONS: I did call the White House and urge the president to nominate someone who is confirmable when Justice Kennedy announced his resignation. I will say that Judge Kavanaugh is truly at the extreme end of American legal thought on some key issues. I intend to vote against him, but I do think that this week pause was an important opportunity for the allegations against him to be investigated and either confirmed or denied.

INSKEEP: Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, thanks so much.

COONS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Have a good morning now.

And NPR's Mara Liasson has been listening along with us here. Mara Liasson, what did you hear there?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, what I heard was that Senator Coons laid down the criteria for what would satisfy him. And my thought was, it doesn't really matter if it satisfies any Democrats. The only thing that matters is if the process, this week-long investigation, satisfies Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Jeff Flake, who are the three moderate Republicans who wanted this pause, something the president and leader Mitch McConnell and Kavanaugh himself didn't want.

But the math is that the Republicans can afford to only lose one vote. And you have Senator Collins saying it's very, quote, "reassuring to the public" that we're doing this investigation. She said, it shows Republicans want to make sure we have all the facts to make an informed decision. So this might be the kind of thing Democrats wanted. But beware of what you wish for because it just might grease the skids for a Kavanaugh confirmation.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.