Trump says FBI has free rein on interviews in Kavanaugh probe

By Steve Holland and David Morgan
FILE PHOTO: Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., September 27, 2018. Win McNamee/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

By Steve Holland and David Morgan WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Monday he has given the FBI free rein to interview any witnesses it deems necessary for a comprehensive investigation of sexual misconduct allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, his U.S. Supreme Court nominee. But Trump, speaking three days after he ordered an investigation lasting no more than a week, said he does not want the probe to become a "witch hunt" and he wants it completed quickly. The FBI will be guided by what Senate Republicans want examined, added Trump, who ordered the investigation after Senate Republican leaders were pressed by Senator Jeff Flake and other moderates in Trump's own party. "I want them to do a very comprehensive investigation. Whatever that means, according to the senators and the Republicans and the Republican majority, I want them to do that," Trump said at a White House news conference. Christine Blasey Ford, a university professor from California, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in 1982 when both were high school students in Maryland. Kavanaugh denied her allegation, as well as accusations made by two other women, and accused Democrats of a political "hit." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the chamber will vote this week on Kavanaugh, a conservative federal appeals court judge. A spokesman for McConnell declined to clarify whether McConnell was referring to procedural votes or a final vote on whether to confirm Kavanaugh. Trump said he instructed White House counsel Don McGahn over the weekend to give the FBI a free hand to interview whatever witnesses the agency considers necessary. "I think the FBI should interview anybody that they want, within reason," Trump added, including all three accusers as well as Kavanaugh himself. "We don't want to go on a witch hunt, do we?" Trump asked, mentioning a term he has used in the past to denigrate Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Flake, backed by fellow moderate Republicans Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, asked for the FBI investigation. Democrats previously had demanded an FBI probe before any confirmation vote, but Trump and other Republicans opposed the move. Flake said he was in close touch with McGahn's office to ensure a thorough investigation. 'REAL INVESTIGATION' "We certainly want the FBI to do a real investigation and we are working to make sure that happens," Flake said at an event in Boston. "It does no good to have an investigation that gives us more cover, for example. We actually need to find out what we can find out." Some Democrats raised questions about the investigation's scope after weekend reports that Senate Republicans were working with the White House to limit the number of witnesses - set at four initially - and exclude the third accuser's allegation. Nine of 10 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter on Monday to FBI Director Christopher Wray and McGahn listing 24 people who they said should be interviewed by the FBI, and urged that the investigation assess all three allegations of sexual misconduct. Democratic Senator Chris Coons, instrumental in Flake's request for a FBI probe, did not sign the letter. But Coons said of the probe: "It has to be well beyond the initial very narrow scope of four witnesses, four individuals being interviewed." Supreme Court nominations require Senate confirmation. Trump's fellow Republicans control the Senate by a narrow 51-49 margin. That means if all the Democrats vote against Kavanaugh, Trump could not afford to have more than one Republican oppose his nominee, with Vice President Mike Pence casting a tie-breaking vote. If confirmed, Kavanaugh would deepen conservative control of the Supreme Court. The confirmation battle has flared just weeks before the Nov. 6 congressional elections in which Democrats are trying to capture control of Congress from the Republicans. The panel's Democrats also asked the FBI to provide copies of all witness interviews and a list of all witnesses who refuse to cooperate. The three allegations of sexual misconduct date to the 1980s. Kavanaugh's second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, has been interviewed by the FBI, Coons said. It was not clear whether the FBI would investigate the allegations by a third woman, Julie Swetnick, as Democrats demanded. P.J. Smyth, identified by Ford as being at the gathering of teenagers where the alleged assault occurred, was interviewed and again denied knowledge of the gathering or of improper conduct by his high school friend Kavanaugh, Smyth's lawyers said. Trump said he believes Kavanaugh did not lie during his Judiciary Committee testimony about the extent of his drinking in high school and college. On the other hand, Trump said, if the FBI uncovers something, "I'll take that into consideration. I have a very open mind." Trump did not elaborate. (Reporting by Steve Holland and David Morgan; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert, Richard Cowan and Sarah N. Lynch; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Will Dunham)