By David B. Rivkin Jr and Kristi Remington
The bipartisan bonhomie occasioned by the reopening of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s background investigation dissipated quickly. By the weekend, Senate Democrats—who had demanded the investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation—were challenging its credibility, objecting to its scope and focus, and lamenting that the White House had any involvement in shaping the process.
The reopened investigation, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham—reflecting the White House’s view—potentially entailed interviewing Deborah Ramirez, who claims that Judge Kavanaugh committed lewd conduct while a freshmen at Yale, and the three purported witnesses named by first accuser Christine Blasey Ford—Mark Judge, P.J. Smyth and Leland Keyser—all of whom have attested they have no memory that would corroborate her accusation. Julie Swetnick’s sordid and implausible claims were to be left out, and if any new allegations against Judge Kavanaugh were to emerge, these also wouldn’t be investigated.
President Trump told reporters Monday: “The FBI should interview anybody that they want within reason, but you have to say within reason.” That qualification is crucial. It is clear that Judge Kavanaugh’s opponents are clamoring for an open-ended fishing expedition that, probably by design, would go on much longer than a week. They are insisting that the FBI investigate Judge Kavanaugh’s drinking while in high school and college and interview anyone who might know about it. Two such people have already come forward, and there are no disincentives for new claimants, possibly driven by partisan or personal animus, to emerge.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) tried to justify his demand to broaden the FBI investigation by claiming that heavy drinking was “directly relevant” to the sexual-assault allegations. If this approach were adopted, the FBI would have to interview a very large pool of witnesses about Judge Kavanaugh’s alcohol intake, and possibly many other personal traits, over many years. Never mind that alcohol use is a standard FBI question, certainly asked in the course of Judge Kavanaugh’s previous six background investigations.
Kavanaugh foes also want the FBI to interview people who might challenge the credibility of pro-Kavanaugh witnesses. Mr. Judge is a prominent target here. His former girlfriend Elizabeth Rasor has stated publicly that he has disclosed to her facts relating to his past sexual activities that have nothing to do with Judge Kavanaugh, but cast Mr. Judge in a negative light. This approach could also open up a never-ending investigation, in which the FBI inquires into the credibility of all witnesses, whether pro- or anti-Kavanaugh, including witnesses interviewed to test other witnesses’ credibility.
The demands get even more absurd. “For its investigation to be comprehensive, the FBI must also get to the bottom of what ‘boofing’ means,” wrote Brian Fallon, who worked as press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, in Politico on Monday. That’s a reference to a joke in Mr. Kavanaugh’s high-school yearbook entry. As Mr. Fallon notes, “Kavanaugh said it referred to ‘flatulence.’ ”
The entire debate is complicated by confusion about what the FBI does in a background investigation. Even former Director James Comey is mixed up. He penned a vastly misleading New York Times op-ed Sunday, in which he seemed to conflate background checks with criminal probes. “It is one thing to have your lawyer submit a statement on your behalf,” Mr. Comey wrote. “It is a very different thing to sit across from two F.B.I. special agents and answer their relentless questions.”
The FBI is primarily a law-enforcement agency. Its criminal investigations are often wide-ranging, can be potentially expanded into new areas, and have no preset time limits. Although the president has authority under the Constitution to direct the exercise of all federal law-enforcement activities, in practice the FBI enjoys great autonomy when conducting criminal investigations. Agents seek both to uncover the facts and to assess the credibility of everybody they interview. Their questioning is often aggressive and repetitive. Interviewees are warned they will face criminal penalties if they lie to the FBI.
FBI background investigations are a fundamentally different affair. They are not based on any explicit statutory authorization but are founded on regulations authorizing investigations of persons who seek federal government employment. The bureau’s authority to conduct investigations of nominees dates to at least President Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450 of 1953, though some scholars credit the beginning of the process to President Hoover and his request of Attorney General William Mitchell to investigate the qualification of applicants for judicial positions.
FBI background investigations are carried out by a special team within the bureau called Special Inquiry and General Background Investigations Unit. SIGBIU functions as a gatherer of facts. It doesn’t cajole or challenge witnesses and routinely offers them anonymity. It never proffers any credibility assessments or speculates about the motives of witnesses.
SIGBIU operates on tight deadlines and usually moves faster with Supreme Court nominations. The process begins and is completed well before the nominee’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing takes place. Occasionally, SIGBIU is directed to conduct further interviews. Throughout the whole process, it operates under instructions from both the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office.
Significantly, there is a firewall between SIGBIU and FBI’s criminal-investigative divisions. SIGBIU’s goal is to have witnesses be open and forthcoming. Agents routinely assure witnesses that nothing that they say during the interview will be referred for criminal investigation. Even more fundamental, the FBI’s velvet-glove approach to background investigations reflects its recognition that people they interview are not suspected of any crimes and cannot be coerced into cooperating or threatened with a grand jury subpoena.
Running a background investigation as if it were a criminal one would destroy the FBI’s ability to conduct the former. It would cause many Americans to refuse to cooperate. It would cause the bureau to exceed its constitutionally proper remit. And having the FBI proffer credibility determinations in the context of a judicial appointment would politicize the bureau—and, as then-Sen. Joe Biden correctly asserted during Justice Clarence Thomas’s 1991 confirmation hearings, it would usurp a function that properly belongs to the president and the Senate.
The demands by anti-Kavanaugh Democrats are blatantly partisan and unfair. What they seek has never been done with any judicial nominee in American history. They also run afoul of important legal and practical realities of FBI-conducted background investigations. If countenanced, they would politicize the FBI and destroy the judicial confirmation process.
Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Ms. Remington served in the Justice Department during George W. Bush administration. She was responsible for overseeing the judicial nomination and confirmation process, including for Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.