News Brief: Brett Kavanaugh And Mitch McConnell

Oct 4, 2018
Originally published on October 4, 2018 10:46 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Congressional sources say it is finished. Results of the FBI's supplemental background check into Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh will be delivered to the Senate today.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to keep this process moving forward. He has scheduled a vote of the full Senate on Kavanaugh's confirmation tomorrow.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: There will be plenty of time for members to review and be briefed on the supplemental material before a Friday cloture vote. So I'm calling cloture on Judge Kavanaugh's nomination this evening so the process can move forward.

GREENE: Now, Senator McConnell was speaking late last night before he or any senators had read the FBI's findings. The White House put out a statement saying they are still confident that the Senate will vote to confirm President Trump's nominee. Now meanwhile, of course, public debate over this is becoming more divisive than ever. More than a thousand law professors have signed a letter saying that the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh should not necessarily preclude him from sitting on the high court but that the partisanship he displayed at the hearing should. And there's also new polling out about how the Kavanaugh debate is playing politically.

MARTIN: All right. So much to get to this morning - we've got two of NPR's finest here, NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas and NPR's lead political editor Domenico Montanaro.

Good morning to you both.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right. Ryan, I'm going to start with you and the FBI investigation itself. This was never supposed to draw any conclusions. Right? But remind us what additional information the Senate panel wanted from this additional background check.

LUCAS: Well, that's kind of a tricky question because what one wanted kind of depends on whether you were a Republican or a Democrat on this. Republicans wanted this to focus on Ford's allegations. That's Christine...

MARTIN: Blasey Ford.

LUCAS: ...Blasey Ford, who came forward with allegations about sexual misconduct by Brett Kavanaugh as well as a second allegation from Deborah Ramirez. She's a Yale classmate of Kavanaugh's who says that he exposed himself to her at a party. Democrats, however, have increasingly talked about Kavanaugh's drinking as well, since that might have bearing on his behavior at the time of these alleged incidents.

But it's important to say that this is a background investigation. It's done at the behest of the White House. The president controls the parameters of it, the scope of it. And the president has said he was fine if the FBI talks to anybody. But he was providing direction to the FBI based off of what Senate Republicans...

MARTIN: Right, what Senate Republicans wanted and what Senate Republicans wanted from the beginning was actually no investigation. They didn't really want that...

LUCAS: Right.

MARTIN: ...To happen. And then if it was going to happen, they wanted the scope to be limited.

LUCAS: Right.

MARTIN: So do we know exactly how many people the FBI ended up talking to?

LUCAS: Well, I have been able to confirm six people that the FBI talked to. The bulk of the work appears to have focused on Dr. Ford's allegations. Five of the people the FBI spoke to are high school friends of Kavanaugh's or Ford's. That's Mark Judge, PJ Smyth, Tim Gaudette and Chris Garrett? Some of these names are familiar. They also spoke to Leland Keyser. That's Ford's friend who Ford says was at the gathering the night of the alleged assault. The sixth person that the FBI talked to was Deborah Ramirez.

The most notable thing here is who the FBI did not speak to. Ramirez's legal team says that she provided the FBI with a list of 20 possible witnesses or people who heard of the alleged incident contemporaneously - that's in Ramirez's case. They say that the FBI did not contact any of them. Some of Kavanaugh's classmates from Yale have come out publicly and said they tried to contact the FBI to provide information. But they didn't hear back. And notably, of course, the FBI didn't talk to Ford...

MARTIN: Right.

LUCAS: ...Or, it appears, Kavanaugh. And that's something that two former very senior FBI officials who I spoke to said would be the normal thing to do, to talk to those...

MARTIN: Even though they had already given their sworn testimony in front of the panel, which...

LUCAS: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Republicans are saying that was sufficient.

LUCAS: Right.

MARTIN: But you're saying, the FBI would have gone to these people again.

LUCAS: Normally, that's - normally, you would still talk to them, yes.

MARTIN: So Mitch McConnell, as we've said, is - he wants to push this forward as quickly as possible. What happens today?

LUCAS: Well, the White House is transmitting this report to the Senate Judiciary Committee. We've been told that there will be one copy of it. All 100 senators and a handful of aides who have clearance will be able to see this material. They can review it in a secure room at the Capitol. Republicans and Democrats can start doing that this morning.

McConnell has already set up this procedural vote that we heard of. That will be on Friday. And if that passes, we're likely to have a final vote over the weekend. And it's important to note - both of those votes just need 51 votes to pass.

MARTIN: Does the public get to see the FBI investigation?

LUCAS: It's unlikely. Generally, background investigations are not available to the public. And there's nothing, at this point, that has indicated that we will get to see this.

MARTIN: All right. So let's talk about the political implications of all this, which is what Domenico Montanaro has been looking at. The other night, Domenico, we saw the president at a campaign rally mocking Christine Blasey Ford and her testimony. He got a huge laugh, huge applause in Mississippi. He clearly sees this as a political winner for himself and Republicans. Is it?

MONTANARO: Well, the nomination fight certainly fired up Republicans. I mean, since July, the number of Republicans saying that they think these midterm elections are, quote, "very important" in our new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll - that number has skyrocketed from 68 percent to 80 percent. That's about the same level as Democrats, who we've been saying all year were more fired up than Republicans and that that could lead to this blue wave.

But I have to tell you, Republican strategists have been telling me that nothing had been able to break through this year. And quite frankly, they'd been concerned that the GOP base wouldn't have a sense of urgency to show up to the polls - until now.

MARTIN: Which is really interesting because there were Democratic strategists who said they were having a hard time getting people fired up about fighting the Kavanaugh nomination. And there had been some presumption that this was, you know, all part of the Democrats' plan to get people all riled up. But it turns out that it's the opposite, that this is actually energizing Republicans.

The poll asked respondents whether Kavanaugh should be confirmed regardless of what the FBI has found. What's the answer there?

MONTANARO: Well, 52 percent of people said that he should not be confirmed if there are lingering doubts. Forty percent said that he should. That's a reversal, by the way - I should note - from 1991. When people were asked about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill and whether or not he should be confirmed if there were lingering doubts, 56 percent of people said he should be confirmed.

In our poll, the 40 percent who say that he should still be confirmed regardless is driven by Republicans, not surprisingly. Three-quarters of Republicans say that he should still be confirmed even if there's a doubt. And among them, Republican men - that's 81 percent who think that he should be. That kind of resentment, that cultural grievance - something we've seen emerge over the last couple of days - we noted the president's comments. And this nomination fight really firing up Republicans, you know? That is a big piece of what Republicans are hoping helps them this year.

MARTIN: I mean, at the root of this, this is a new chapter in a culture war. I mean, you've got the president saying this is a dangerous time for young men, the threat of false accusations. Is that really something Republicans think is going to help them with the gender gap this fall?

MONTANARO: Well, maybe not with the gender gap. But their bet is that Democrats and Democratic women, in particular, were already sky high, and they need to get out the base. They're looking at numbers with independents, Latinos and young people, where they don't seem as interested in this election.

MARTIN: And Ryan, meanwhile, other voices keep chiming in - right? We've got this letter David mentioned from these lawyers - these law professors; CNN had Kavanaugh's roommate from Yale on last season talking about his heavy drinking; protests on Capitol Hill. Even if Kavanaugh is confirmed, there's going to be a shadow over his tenure.

LUCAS: Certainly, there is a - as you noted - a cultural kind of battle, tug of war going on right now. And it's hard to see how there wouldn't be a shadow over it based on what we've seen transpire in the past couple of weeks, yeah.

MARTIN: So we will look to see how the votes go down.

NPR's Ryan Lucas and Domenico Montanaro, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: Closing arguments in the high-profile murder trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke start today.

GREENE: Yeah. Let's remember, Van Dyke is the officer who shot a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, 16 times on a Chicago street in 2014. The city went to great lengths to keep a dashcam video of the shooting from going public. But in 2015, a Cook County judge forced the city to release that footage, and the video is now a key piece of evidence in this trial. In it, you see McDonald walking away from police officers. He then falls to the ground and is shot multiple times as he lays on the pavement.

Now, Officer Van Dyke claims he acted in self-defense. And in his testimony on Tuesday, Van Dyke tried to explain why what we see in this video doesn't match his interpretation of the events.

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JASON VAN DYKE: It's not showing what I saw. It's showing the back of my head and above me.

MARTIN: Patrick Smith of member station WBEZ and host of the podcast 16 Shots has been covering this trial, joins us from Chicago.

Patrick, thanks for being back with us. What did you make of the last couple days of testimony, particularly what the jury heard from Jason Van Dyke?

PATRICK SMITH, BYLINE: Well, we were not sure that we were going to hear from Officer Van Dyke. I had been talking to attorneys who thought - there's some attorneys who thought, oh, you have to put him on. If you're claiming self-defense, you have to get on there and explain your fear; and a lot of other people who worried about what the cross-examination for him would be like, which is what we heard on Tuesday.

You know, he was very emotional on the stand. He did make that fear real. But then when prosecutors got a chance to question him, he could not explain, I think, with any - you know, he didn't have any satisfactory answers for why what he was saying just didn't match up with the video evidence.

MARTIN: So you imagine the video is going to play into closing arguments today.

SMITH: I'm certain it will. You know, the first two days of their case, prosecutors played the video a dozen times. I'm sure they will play it at least once in closing arguments. It's been the center point of their case. Most of the witnesses they've called have referred to it. They've found multiple reasons to play it again and again for the jury.

MARTIN: And so what's the crux of his defense?

SMITH: His defense is that that dashcam video is just one angle and, specifically, it's not the perspective that he had and that he was in fear for his life. You know, the defense has spent the last week talking about how Laquan McDonald had a knife and was this scary figure that was a danger to Jason Van Dyke and others. They've been really trying to paint Laquan McDonald as a serious threat who, you know, had to be shot. And that's the case they've been making.

MARTIN: How's the city preparing for what might happen with this verdict?

SMITH: Well, we know that Chicago Police officers are having their days off canceled. And their 8 1/2-hour shifts - the normal shift is 8 1/2 hours - those have all been extended to 12 hours in preparation for big protests or whatever response there is.

MARTIN: When do deliberations start, Patrick?

SMITH: Deliberations should begin this afternoon. After that, we have no idea, although there's a lot of focus on the jury. There are 12 members, but only one of them is black. That's in a county that's 25 percent black.

MARTIN: WBEZ reporter Patrick Smith covering this trial closely.

Thank you so much. We appreciate sharing your reporting with us.

SMITH: Thank you.

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