By Nicholas Fandos and Sheryl Gay Stolberg
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump, ceding to a request from Senate Republican leaders facing an insurrection in their ranks, ordered the FBI on Friday to open an investigation into accusations of sexual assault leveled against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, his nominee to the Supreme Court.
The decision capped a confusing day on Capitol Hill, where the Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination, but only by agreeing to a last-minute demand by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to conduct a time-limited inquiry.
“I’ve ordered the FBI to conduct a supplemental investigation to update Judge Kavanaugh’s file,” Trump said in a statement. “As the Senate has requested, this update must be limited in scope and completed in less than one week.”
The decision in the Senate came after a dramatic reversal by Flake, who announced he would not support final confirmation until the FBI investigates the allegations.
The delay puts a cloud over what Republicans expected to be a triumphant day, but they still had reason to be optimistic: Despite adamant Democratic opposition, they were still able to muscle the nomination through committee with an 11-10 vote and send it to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation.
Flake had announced Friday morning that he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh less than 24 hours after a remarkable public hearing with a woman accusing the judge of sexual assault.
But after nearly an hour of hushed negotiations with Democratic senators on Friday, calls to law enforcement officials and other undecided Republicans, Flake chose a different course. His decision threw the nomination into uncertainty just moments before the panel was set to vote.
“We ought to do what we can to make sure we do all due diligence with a nomination this important,” Flake said. “This country is being ripped apart here.”
He said he was seeking an FBI investigation “limited in time and scope to the current allegations that are there.” And he hoped it would lend additional credibility to Kavanaugh’s denials.
Flake is one of the few votes for Kavanaugh still in play, giving him considerable sway over the how the chamber proceeds. But he had crucial support from two Republicans and one Democrat who remain undecided: Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.VA.
It is ultimately up to the majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, to determine when to hold a final confirmation vote.
After the committee vote, McConnell voiced frustration shared by other Republicans on the committee: More accusations – false ones – were all but certain to surface as senators waited, he said, according to a senior Republican official familiar with the conversation.
But with only the narrowest of majorities, 51-49, McConnell had little choice but to agree.
Even before an investigation began, it appeared Republican fears could be founded. An attorney for one of the accusers, Michael Avenatti, announced on Twitter on Friday that his client, Julie Swetnick, will tell her story “directly to the American people” this weekend because Republicans have not allowed her to testify under oath.