In his press conference at the United Nations, President Donald Trump defended his decision not to ask the FBI to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. But his reasons for his decision did not square with the facts:
- Trump said “there was nothing to investigate,” because the FBI “didn’t know anything” about the location, time and years of the accusations against Kavanaugh. That’s not true. Christine Blasey Ford, for example, provided an approximate time and location of the alleged attack and the names of four people who were at the party.
- Trump also said such allegations are “not for the FBI” to investigate, inaccurately quoting former Sen. Joe Biden as saying of the FBI, “They don’t do this.” Actually, Biden, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, and the Bush administration agreed to refer a sexual harassment allegation against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas to the FBI.
Trump made his remarks on the eve of dueling testimony by Kavanaugh and Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
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The president, who was wrapping up a visit to the United Nations, was asked numerous questions about accusations of sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh while he was in high school and college. Three women have made separate accusations — including Ford, who has told the committee that Kavanaugh “physically and sexually assaulted” her in high school in the early 1980s.
Here’s the exchange that Trump had at the press conference:
Reporter, Sept. 26: Mr. President, thank you very much. Of course, what you’re looking forward to tomorrow is the hearings with Judge Kavanaugh before the Judiciary Committee. In 1991, when Joe Biden passed along to the Bush 41 White House the allegations that Anita Hill had raised against Clarence Thomas, the Bush White House asked the FBI to look into it as part of Judge Thomas’s background investigation — not a criminal investigation, but the background investigation. When these allegations were raised, why didn’t this White House do the same thing? And with all of the allegations that are coming out now about Judge Kavanaugh, was there an opportunity missed here to have investigators look into this and get some sort of clarity one way or the other?
Trump: Well, the FBI told us they’ve investigated Judge Kavanaugh six times, five times, many times over the years. They know him very well. But here, there was nothing to investigate from at least one standpoint. They didn’t know the location. They didn’t know the time. They didn’t know the year. They didn’t know anything. And it’s like, where do you go? Also, it’s not for the FBI. If you look at what Joe Biden said, he said, “They don’t do this.” And he said it very clearly.
Let’s first look at the president’s claim that there was nothing for the FBI to investigate.
The president said, “They didn’t know the location. They didn’t know the time. They didn’t know the year. They didn’t know anything.” That is not true in Ford’s case.
Of the three accusers, Ford has given the most detailed account of her allegations.
In a July 30 letter to the Sen. Dianne Feinstein of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ford said the alleged attack occurred in a “suburban Maryland area home” in the “early 1980s” when both Kavanaugh and Ford were in high school. She told the Washington Post in a Sept. 16 article that it occurred in the summer of 1982 at a house in Montgomery County, not far from the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase.
In an update to the Senate judiciary investigation posted on Sept. 23, the committee states that it “learned the identities of the four other individuals Dr. Ford claimed were at the party when the incident took place.” The committee identified them as Kavanaugh, Mark Judge, Patrick J. Smyth and Leland Ingham Keyser.
All this is more than enough information for the FBI to reopen its background investigation of Kavanaugh — if directed to do so by the president.
That is exactly what happened in the fall of 1991, when Anita Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment when the two worked together at the Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the early 1980s.
Trump made reference to that case when he inaccurately quoted Biden, who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Thomas confirmation hearings.
The Thomas confirmation hearings began on Sept. 10, 1991, and continued through Sept. 20, 1991, without any public knowledge of Hill’s accusations. NPR’s Nina Totenberg broke the story when she interviewed Hill for an Oct. 6, 1991, broadcast.
In her report, Totenberg included a statement from the White House saying it learned of the accusations on Sept. 23, 1991.
Totenberg, Oct. 6, 1991: Last night the White House, responding to inquiries from NPR, issued a statement saying that it had been informed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 23 about the allegation against Thomas and that the president had directed the FBI to conduct an investigation. Two days later, the White House reviewed the report and, quote, “determined that the allegation was unfounded,” close quote. A White House spokesman said the president continues to believe that Judge Thomas is eminently qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, but several senators contacted by NPR say they are troubled by the Hill allegations and the long delay in investigating them by Chairman Biden.
Biden and his staff, as Totenberg’s report mentioned, came under criticism at the time for what some perceived as a slow response to Hill’s accusations.
“By the time Clarence Thomas was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee the week of September 10, Hill had contacted the staff of the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Joseph Biden. She says that while Biden’s staff seemed interested, it was not until 10 days later, after repeated calls from her, that she was interviewed by the FBI,” Totenberg said in her Oct. 6, 1991, report.
In an Oct. 8, 1991, floor speech, Biden said that it wasn’t until after the Sept. 20, 1991, hearing that he was able to get Hill’s permission to have the FBI investigate her allegations.
Setting aside Biden’s response time, there is no doubt that the committee chairman at the time was involved in the decision to refer Hill’s charges to the FBI.
On Oct. 5, 1991, the White House issued a statement that said the White House and committee jointly agreed to direct the FBI to conduct a “full, thorough and expeditious investigation,” according to an Oct. 6, 1991, story in Newsday (available on Nexis).
Newsday, Oct. 6, 1991: The White House last night released the following statement to Newsday.
“On Sept. 23, the allegation was brought to the attention of the Judiciary Committee. The Judiciary Committee immediately informed the White House. In consultation with the committee, the White House promptly directed the FBI to conduct a full, thorough and expeditious investigation. Upon completion of the FBI investigation on Sept. 26, the report was submitted to the White House and the committee. The White House reviewed the report and determined that the allegation was unfounded. The president continues to believe that Judge Thomas is eminently qualified to serve on the Supreme Court and expects him to be confirmed promptly.”
What Biden Actually Said
Also, Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican, defended the committee chairman, Biden, and the committee members in an Oct. 8, 1991, floor speech. Simpson called criticism that the committee did not take Hill’s charges seriously “appalling” and “wholly without foundation.”
Simpson, Oct. 8, 1991: And to say that the chairman, somehow, is not responsive to that is wrong; or the members — that is just plain wrong. We take it very seriously. The Judiciary Committee took those charges against a Supreme Court nominee extremely seriously. The committee took the most serious and effective course it could possibly take under the circumstances. It turned those charges over to the FBI for investigation. And the FBI investigation included interviewing Professor Hill, Judge Thomas, and all of the possible corroborating witnesses suggested by Professor Hill. These were her suggestions as to who the FBI interview.
For his part, Biden gave a fiery defense of his actions when the confirmation hearings resumed on Oct. 11, 1991. Some Republicans, including current Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, have referred to Biden’s remarks that day as justification for not referring the accusations against Kavanaugh to the FBI. Trump did, too, but he misquoted Biden in doing so.
In answering the question about why he did not refer the allegations to the FBI, Trump said, “Also, it’s not for the FBI. If you look at what Joe Biden said, he said, ‘They don’t do this.’ And he said it very clearly.”
That is not what Biden said.
In remarks directed at “my pontificating colleagues, Democrat and Republican alike,” Biden said it’s not the FBI’s job to draw conclusions or make recommendations to the committee. The FBI turns over its material to the committee for its consideration, Biden said.
Biden, Oct. 11, 1991: And the last thing I will point out, the next person who refers to an FBI report as being worth anything, obviously doesn’t understand anything. FBI explicitly does not, in this or any other case reach a conclusion, period, period. So, Judge, there is no reason why you should know this. The reason why we cannot rely on the FBI report, you would not like it if we did because it is inconclusive. They say he said, she said, and they said, period. So when people wave an FBI report before you, understand they do not, they do not reach conclusions. They do not make, as my friend points out more accurately, they do not make recommendations.
It’s also worth noting that Biden said that “no one has proved a pattern” of sexual harassment against Thomas. “If there is not a pattern, to me that is probative. That has some dispositive weight. No one has proved a pattern here of anything. We are not finished yet. But no one has proved a pattern,” he said.