Donald Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court will face a week-long FBI investigation into sexual assault allegations following a dramatic day in the US Senate.
The president has directed the FBI to launch a supplemental investigation into Brett Kavanaugh at the request of the Senate judiciary committee.
Mr Kavanaugh cleared the first hurdle towards being confirmed as a new judge in America’s highest court, after his nomination was approved by the US Senate’s judiciary committee on Friday by an 11-10 vote.
However, in late dramatic scenes just moments before the crucial vote was held, Republican senator and committee member Jeff Flake called for a week-long delay before Mr Kavanaugh’s nomination is voted on by the full Senate for final confirmation.
Mr Flake said this would allow “due diligence” and an FBI investigation into claims made against Mr Kavanaugh by a number of women, which he denies.
Other senators also viewed as crucial swing votes on Mr Kavanaugh’s nomination, both Republican and Democrat, subsequently backed the calls for a delayed vote to allow an investigation.
It raised the prospect of Republicans being unable to win the vote on Mr Kavanaugh, a conservative, being confirmed as a Supreme Court justice without a probe into the claims against him.
Following a meeting of the party’s top senators, the Senate judiciary committee – on which Republicans hold a majority – announced they would ask the White House to order a “supplemental FBI background investigation” into Mr Kavanaugh.
This would be limited to “current credible allegations” and be completed “no later than one week from today”, the committee added.
Mr Trump agreed to the demand, adding in a statement: “As the Senate has requested, this update must be limited in scope and completed in less than one week.”
The White House also released a statement from Mr Kavanaugh, who said: “Throughout this process, I’ve been interviewed by the FBI, I’ve done a number of ‘background’ calls directly with the Senate.
“Yesterday, I answered questions under oath about every topic the senators and their counsel asked me.
“I’ve done everything they have requested and will continue to co-operate.”
A lawyer for Christine Blasey Ford, one of Mr Kavanaugh’s accusers, said she welcomed the FBI action, but added: “No artificial limits as to time or scope should be imposed on this investigation.”
The president had already signalled he would follow top Republicans’ instruction on an FBI probe, saying he would “let the Senate handle that”.
Speaking in the White House, Mr Trump also described the powerful testimony of Dr Ford to the committee on Thursday – watched on TV by more than 20 million Americans – as “very compelling” and labelled her “a very credible witness” and “very fine woman”.
Mr Trump added Mr Kavanaugh’s own testimony to the committee was “an incredible moment in the history of our country”, while he insisted he hadn’t thought about a replacement Supreme Court nominee “not even a little bit”.
Earlier on Friday, Arizona senator Mr Flake had revealed he would support Mr Kavanaugh’s nomination, but was then angrily confronted by two female sexual assault survivors as he entered a lift.
He was told: “You have power when so many women are powerless,” and: “Be a hero.”
Mr Flake’s subsequent last-ditch intervention prior to the committee vote, in which he urged an FBI investigation, prompted suggestions the women – Maria Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila – had forced the change of heart from the senator.
With the FBI investigation looming, Mr Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge told the Senate committee via email he would “cooperate with any law enforcement agency that is assigned to confidentially investigate these allegations”.
Dr Ford alleges Mr Judge was in the room and participated when she claims Mr Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party in 1982, when she was about 15.
In his email to the committee, Mr Judge said: “I do not recall attending parties during 1981-1983 when I fondled or grabbed women in an aggressive or unwanted manner.”
He added: “I have never spiked punch to get anyone drunk or disoriented. Nor have I witnessed Brett Kavanaugh spike punch.”
Mr Judge also branded allegations by another woman, Julie Swetnick, about himself and Mr Kavanaugh as “bizarre” and “outlandish” and said he does not know her.
He added: “I have never engaged in gang rape of
any woman, including Ms Swetnick.”
During the committee’s hearing prior to their vote, rival members had traded accusations while some Democratic senators staged a walkout in protest.
Republican senator John Kennedy was among those to lament the divisive spectacle of Mr Kavanaugh’s nomination process.
He characterised it as a “grotesque carnival” and an “intergalactic freak show”.
Fellow Republican Ted Cruz said Washington D.C. had been “at its very ugliest” in recent days.
The Supreme Court is due to begin its next term on Monday. Mr Trump has nominated Mr Kavanaugh to replace Anthony Kennedy, who retired in July.
If Mr Kavanaugh is successfully confirmed as a Supreme Court judge it will mean a conservative majority on the court for the first time in 30 years.
With cases on abortion rights, immigration, gay rights, voting rights and transgender troops potentially being heard before the court soon, a conservative ascendancy could establish legal precedent on a number of important issues.