WASHINGTON - Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh moved closer to confirmation as the Senate prepared for a key vote Friday, with Republicans arguing that an FBI report on sexual misconduct allegations exonerated the judge.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona - two decisive Republican votes - indicated Thursday that the additional FBI probe was adequate, although they both cautioned they would continue to read the secretive report. Flake also told reporters that "we've seen no additional corroborating information" to bolster the allegation from Christine Blasey Ford, who emotionally testified last week that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers.
Satisfying Flake and Collins, as well as a third Republican, Lisa Murkowski, would be enough to confirm Kavanaugh. The senator from Alaska, facing pressure from Native Americans in her state, has not said how she will vote.
Even as dozens of anti-Kavanaugh protesters descended on Capitol Hill, Republicans barreled toward end-of-the-week votes on President Trump's nominee that could cement the court's conservative majority for a generation.
"I'm sensing we're in a good place," said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican, a day ahead of a key procedural vote. Noting the handful of GOP senators who had been on the fence, Thune said the FBI probe "was sufficiently thorough to satisfy the concerns that some of them had voiced."
Democrats were nearly unanimous in their opposition. One moderate Democrat facing a tough reelection in a Republican state - Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota - announced she will oppose Kavanaugh.
That left only one potential Democratic vote for Kavanaugh - Sen. Joe Manchin - who has yet to announce his position. The West Virginia lawmaker was reviewing the FBI report in a secure room at the Capitol on Thursday afternoon and said he would return Friday to study it more.
- Heitkamp will vote against Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination
- Take our poll: Do you agree with Heitkamp's decision to vote against Kavanaugh?
A last-minute wild card was Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who is scheduled to be in Montana on Saturday for his daughter's wedding.
The latest background check - the seventh in a series of investigations during Kavanaugh's public-service career - only deepened the bitter, partisan rift over his nomination since July. Democrats and Republicans offered sharply diverging assessments of the report, with Republicans arguing it cleared Kavanaugh and Democrats contending it was too limited in scope.
The sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh, which he has vehemently denied, was the focal point of Heitkamp's lengthy statement on why she will vote against Trump's second Supreme Court pick. Heitkamp said she also questions Kavanaugh's temperament after watching his combative testimony last week.
"When I listened to Dr. Ford testify, I heard the voices of women I have known throughout my life who have similar stories of sexual assault and abuse," said Heitkamp, who served as her state's attorney general for eight years. "Countless North Dakotans and others close to me have since reached out and told me their stories of being raped or sexually assaulted - and expressed the same anguish and fear. I'm in awe of their courage, too."
In Boca Raton, Florida, retired Justice John Paul Stevens, a Republican, also raised concerns about Kavanaugh's temperament, according to the Palm Beach Post.
"I thought [Kavanaugh] had the qualifications for the Supreme Court should he be selected," Stevens said. "I've changed my views for reasons that have no relationship to his intellectual ability. . . . I feel his performance in the hearings ultimately changed my mind."
Kavanaugh addressed the issue in an extraordinary op-ed in the Wall Street Journal published Thursday night, acknowledging that he was "very emotional" during his testimony and "I said a few things I should not have said."
"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 wrote.
Meanwhile, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, echoing most Senate Republicans, said Thursday that the FBI report included "no hint of misconduct," while senior Democrats called it incomplete and suggested that the White House limited the probe to protect Kavanaugh.
That anger spread to the halls of the Hart Senate Office Building, where by late Thursday afternoon hundreds of Kavanaugh opponents - including comedian Amy Schumer and actress Emily Ratajkowski - had gathered to protest his possible confirmation, according to organizers. Police also closed the central Hart atrium, barring staff and the public from entering.
Earlier in the afternoon, protesters had gathered outside the Supreme Court and marched to the Senate to stage a sit-in. Some sat in the atrium and held a circular banner reading "We Believe All Survivors." They held posters reading "Kavanaugh Lied Under Oath," "Unfit to Serve," "Cancel Kavanaugh." And others unfurled banners from balconies.
"What do we want? Justice!" the protesters roared, refusing to leave. "When do we want it? Now!"
Neither Ford nor Kavanaugh were interviewed by the FBI for what senators said was a 46-page report that delayed the roiled confirmation process by a week. Lawyers for Kavanaugh's accusers also criticized the probe, saying the FBI had declined to interview witnesses they suggested.
Grassley said he was "absolutely" satisfied with the report despite the lack of interviews with Ford and Kavanaugh: "If the FBI felt they needed to question them, they would have."
But Murkowski, one of the three closely watched GOP votes, said Thursday afternoon that she did not yet know whether the FBI had been thorough enough in its investigation or spoken to enough witnesses. "What would be helpful for me is kind of a list of those interviewed," she said. "We were not done, we're not done in there."
Senators who reviewed the report said it includes information from FBI interviews with nine witnesses. Five of the witnesses interviewed were related to the allegation from Ford, while the other four had to do with a claim from Deborah Ramirez, who accused Kavanaugh of exposing himself to her while they were students at Yale University. White House spokesman Raj Shah said Thursday morning that FBI agents contacted 10 witnesses, although nine were interviewed.
The report also included details about the mass of information that flooded into the FBI tip line, Sen. Mike Rounds. R-S.D., said. He said that about several hundred calls were reviewed by the bureau to determine whether the tips were related to the investigation.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said that nine of the report's 46 pages came from a three-hour interview with Mark Judge, a former classmate of Kavanaugh's whom Ford claims was present at the time of the alleged assault in the early 1980s. Judge has denied her claim.
"I would say there were actually some other witnesses that probably because of their relationship with Dr. Ford, were maybe more impactful," Corker said. "Generally, they were sympathetic and wishing they could [corroborate]; they could not."
Thune also said that the report showed that FBI agents had asked "pretty specific" questions, in some cases using a calendar kept by Kavanaugh. "I think they really tried to find out as much as they could, matching up dates and places." And to flesh out some key passages, Judiciary Committee staffers were reading communications between two people detailed in the report aloud, so senators could visualize the conversation, Rounds said.
Democrats were infuriated that the probe was, in their view, severely limited and lacked interviews with key witnesses.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, told reporters that "the most notable part of this report is what's not in it." And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the report prompts "even more serious doubts in my mind" about Kavanaugh's truthfulness.
"To say that this investigation exonerates Judge Kavanaugh, or to say that this is a complete investigation, is patently false," Schumer said. "Chairman Grassley's claim that there is no hint of misconduct in these documents is just not true."
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., seemed to acknowledge that there was no corroboration for Ford's charges in the FBI report, but blamed the scope of the investigation.
"You can't find what you don't look for," he said, adding that "this falls short of my expectations for this investigation."
The FBI interviewed three people who Ford said attended the gathering where she said she was assaulted, as well as two other friends of Kavanaugh's who were listed on his calendar as attending a gathering on July 1 of the same summer that Ford said she believes the alleged assault occurred.
But Ford was never focused on July 1 as the date that the assault occurred, a member of her legal team told The Washington Post this week, emphasizing that the FBI would have known that if agents had interviewed Ford.
On Thursday afternoon, attorneys for Ford released a letter they wrote to FBI Director Christopher Wray, ticking off the names of eight witnesses who wanted to be interviewed about Ford's allegation. The list included Ford's husband, Russell; Jeremiah Hanafin, the former FBI agent who conducted Ford's polygraph exam; and friends of Ford's whom she confided in about her accusation.
"The 'investigation' conducted over the past five days is a stain on the process, on the FBI and on our American ideal of justice," the lawyers wrote in the four-page letter to Wray.
A lawyer for Ramirez sent a letter on Thursday to Wray making similar claims. The letter noted that Ramirez had been interviewed by the FBI for two hours Sunday in Colorado and later provided a list of 20 people who might corroborate her account of Kavanaugh's behavior.
"Fewer than four days later, however, the FBI apparently has concluded its investigation - without permitting its agents to investigate," Ramirez's lawyer William Pittard wrote. "We are deeply disappointed by this failure."
In morning tweets, Trump decried what he said was "harsh and unfair treatment" of Kavanaugh, who has undergone previous FBI background checks for other federal jobs, and accused Democrats of obstructing the confirmation process.
"This is now the 7th. time the FBI has investigated Judge Kavanaugh," Trump wrote. "If we made it 100, it would still not be good enough for the Obstructionist Democrats."
During a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, highlighted the way Republicans had rallied around Kavanaugh despite an onslaught of unproven allegations.
"Some commentators have called this our Atticus Finch moment," he said, referencing the white lawyer in the classic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," who defends a black man accused of raping a young white woman in Alabama in the 1930s. Despite significant evidence of his innocence, the black man is convicted and is later killed when he tries to flee his captors.
"We all remember that Atticus Finch was a lawyer who did not believe that a mere accusation was synonymous with guilt," Cornyn said. "We could learn from Atticus Finch now, during this time when there has been such a vicious and unrelenting attack on the integrity and good name of this nominee."
This article was written by John Wagner and Seung Min Kim, reporters for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Emma Brown, Josh Dawsey, Mike DeBonis, Karoun Demirjian, Tom Hamburger, Paul Kane, Gabriel Pogrund, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Erica Werner contributed to this report.