Share
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
Loading...

And why it all comes down to a political decision.

The White House has approved a week-long FBI investigation into allegations of sexual assault and misconduct against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

According to reports, the White House is allowing the FBI to contact Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez about their allegations, but it has asked that the investigation not extend to attorney Michael Avenatti’s client, Julie Swetnick — although President Donald Trump has disputed this.

We’ve reached this point thanks to Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) decision on Friday afternoon to delay a Senate vote for Kavanaugh to give the FBI more time to look into the allegations against him. It was a strange move by Flake, in part because he has already announced his support for Kavanaugh.

But it’s also unclear what the FBI can actually accomplish in one week. The alleged assault occurred more than three decades ago; it’s hard to imagine the FBI resolving things so quickly, especially since there are few witnesses and conflicting accounts of what happened.

And in a situation like this, who determines the scope of the investigation and the number of people to interview? Can the White House or the Senate shut it down if they don’t like the direction it takes?

To get some answers, I reached out to Asha Rangappa, a former FBI agent who is now a lecturer at Yale University. We discussed what comes next, what separates an FBI investigation from a typical Senate investigation, and whether it’s unusual to impose a time limit on an investigation before it begins. I also asked her if she noticed anything suspicious or noteworthy about Kavanaugh’s fiery testimony last Thursday.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

The idea of imposing a week-long deadline on an investigation before it begins seems arbitrary and unserious. How unusual is this?

Asha Rangappa

President George H.W. Bush, if I recall, gave the FBI a 72-hour window to investigate Anita Hill’s allegations against Clarence Thomas in 1991, so it’s not without precedent. However, there are more allegations here than there were against Thomas, and potentially more resistance, so this is undoubtedly more complicated.

But I think the real question here isn’t about the length of the investigation. If the FBI comes back after a week and says, “We don’t really have any other leads,” then that is simple enough. But if they come back and say, “This has generated more leads that we have to follow up on before we can consider this closed,” then this could get very problematic.

Sean Illing

If it’s the latter, if the FBI says, “We need more time, we need to chase down these leads,” then what happens? Does it fall to the Senate or the White House to decide what comes next?

Asha Rangappa

It’s ultimately up to the White House. The White House is the arbiter of the information; they will have to decide what to do, or what not to do, with the information they receive from the FBI. They could, if they wanted, request more information and more time for the FBI to investigate.

Sean Illing

So at the end of this, a political decision will have to be made about what to do with the information the FBI uncovers?

Asha Rangappa

That’s exactly right. The White House is in control of this. They might make decisions under pressure from the Senate, but they, ultimately, are in control of this. I don’t think the Senate can simply shut this down if they don’t like where it’s going. Perhaps they can choose to move ahead and put Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, but if the FBI decides there are more leads to chase down, and the White House gives them the authority to investigate further, then that’s what will happen.

Again, though, that’s a political decision. If the White House shuts it down, there’s nothing the FBI can do. This will be over, no matter what the investigators discover. Because this isn’t a typical criminal investigation, the FBI doesn’t have any independent authority here.

Sean Illing

Who determines the scope of questions investigators can ask?

Asha Rangappa

I expect that they’ll sit down with Ford and get her entire narrative about what happened and when, and then they’ll sit down any other accusers and get their narrative. Then they’ll sit down and do the same with Kavanaugh. Eventually, a picture will emerge, and if it contains contradictions or gaps, the FBI will determine what they need to know, and from whom, and they’ll proceed accordingly.

But this is a supplemental investigation, not an exhaustive background investigation (they’ve already conducted that), so the scope presumably will be limited to these specific allegations. So the investigation itself is limited, but I suspect the investigators will be able to ask any questions they deem necessary.

Sean Illing

How is an FBI investigation like this different from a typical Senate investigation?

Asha Rangappa

For one, the investigation is done in private, with one or two agents present. There’s no time limit on the questions that can be asked, or on the number of follow-up questions that can be asked, like you see in these committee hearings. Plus, senators are not actual investigators. They have certain investigative powers, like the ability to subpoena people and ask questions, but they’re not trained investigators.

The other important difference is that the Senate is openly partisan, which is obviously not what you want in an investigatory body. They’re hoping for a particular outcome, and that, on some level, taints any investigation they conduct. But the FBI isn’t partisan, and they will follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Sean Illing

Should we expect the FBI to draw any definitive conclusions here, or is that not really their job?

Asha Rangappa

They’re not going to draw any definitive conclusions. They’re going to conduct a bunch of interviews and then add them to the existing files — that’s all they’re going to do. They’re not going to come back with a memo that says, “Here’s what we found. Here’s how we connect the dots.”

Their job is to interview people until there are no more logical leads to follow, and then to add what they found to the background files. At that point, it’s up to the White House and the Senate to decide what to do with it.

Sean Illing

As a former investigator, did you recognize anything suggestive or suspicious about Kavanaugh’s testimony last Thursday?

Asha Rangappa

I think he was evasive on many questions. He was often non-responsive, answering questions with more questions, particularly when he was asked about his drinking. He mischaracterized particular things, like saying someone had “refuted” an allegation when in fact they said they “didn’t recall.” To me, those are not indicators of complete honesty.

Sean Illing

Before I let you go, I have to ask about Mark Judge, who is the only key witness in Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh. Judge has apparently agreed to participate in a “confidential investigation.” What does that mean?

Asha Rangappa

That doesn’t mean anything. You either agree to talk to the FBI, and they write down what you say, and that is available to people who refute that file, or you simply decline to talk to the FBI. So the phrase “confidential investigation” is meaningless.

Author: Sean Illing


Read More