WASHINGTON - House Democrats are downplaying the possibility of impeaching Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the wake of a new allegation of sexual impropriety, keeping the investigative focus on President Donald Trump even as 2020 Democratic hopefuls call for the justice's removal.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said Monday that they will press the FBI about its review of allegations that emerged during Kavanaugh's bitter confirmation battle last fall and whether its inquiry was adequate - but they are deep into proceedings against Trump.
"Frankly, we are concentrating our resources on determining whether to impeach the president," Nadler told WNYC radio when asked about the possibility of ousting Kavanaugh. "Personally, I think the president ought to be impeached, but we have to concentrate on that for the next few months."
The Judiciary Committee's caution stands in stark contrast to several of the presidential hopefuls who called for Kavanaugh's impeachment after The New York Times reported over the weekend a new claim against the justice while he was a student at Yale University.
Clamoring for impeachment were Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke and former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro.
Democrats expressed concerns not only with Kavanaugh's alleged conduct years ago but that he may have lied about his actions during his Senate confirmation hearing last year.
In response, Trump defended his nominee, taking to Twitter on Monday to claim that Kavanaugh was the one "being assaulted."
"The one who is actually being assaulted is Justice Kavanaugh - Assaulted by lies and Fake News!" Trump wrote on Twitter. "This is all about the LameStream Media working with their partner, the Dems."
Congressional Democrats' reluctance to join the Kavanaugh impeachment calls highlights the party's realization about the political downside of the issue. In 2018, Republicans were able to rally their base around the Democrats' handling of the Kavanaugh nomination - portraying it as an effort to ruin an innocent man - to flip Senate seats in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Monday sought to use the latest attack on Kavanaugh as a political cudgel against the presidential candidates and the Democratic Party before next year's elections.
"When you're this willing to launch unhinged personal attacks, you reveal a whole lot more about your own radicalism than about the men and women you target," McConnell said in a Senate floor speech.
According to the Times report, a college classmate, Max Stier, said he saw Kavanaugh with his pants down at a party where friends pushed Kavanaugh's penis into a young woman's hand. Stier notified senators and the FBI before Kavanaugh's confirmation last year, but the FBI did not investigate, The Times reported.
The Times report was based on interviews with "two officials who have communicated with Mr. Stier."
In an editor's note after initial publication, The Times said the book on which the report was based noted that "the female student declined to be interviewed and friends say that she does not recall the incident."
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who headed the Judiciary Committee last year, dismissed the latest revelation.
"In the end, there was no credible evidence to support any of the allegations," Grassley said, defending his job overseeing the confirmation battle. "Let me be clear: This is not an allegation. It's barely a third-hand rumor."
Even Sen. Joe Manchin, W.Va., the lone Democrat to vote for Kavanaugh's confirmation, appeared to downplay the new report.
"I made my decision based on the facts," he said. "If you got other facts, bring them forward, but I made my decision on the facts."
Facing limited time, House Democrats privately worry that an effort to oust Kavanaugh would only undermine their investigation of Trump. Lawmakers also are reluctant to re-litigate the new episode because the student does not remember it.
Even some of the most liberal members of the Judiciary Committee said in interviews Monday that Trump was their top focus and any Kavanaugh impeachment demands were premature.
"We have an enormously packed agenda," said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a day ahead of the committee's hearing with Corey Lewandowski, Trump's 2016 campaign manager who will face questions about former special counsel Robert Mueller's report and possible obstruction of justice.
"We need a lot more information in order to make a judgment about whether to impeach him as a sitting justice," said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.
"Presidential criminality continues to be a clear and present threat to the republic, and so we have to remain focused on that," he added.
Nadler said that FBI Director Christopher Wray is already scheduled to testify before the judiciary panel next month and that lawmakers will question him about the FBI's review of the allegations.
The House Judiciary Committee has also requested records from the National Archives pertaining to Kavanaugh's career working in the White House before his appointment to the bench.
Panel spokesman Daniel Schwarz said the committee will closely inspect those documents, "given our suspicions that he lied to the Senate during the confirmation process."
Judiciary Democrats also say they could use the matter against the president in their impeachment investigation. They plan to press Wray on whether Trump or the administration in any way barred investigators from looking into the Stier allegation.
"If that is the case, such an obstruction would be an abuse of power by the president," Schwarz said.
Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court in October after testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, who said Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while they were high school students in the 1980s.
Kavanaugh strenuously denied Ford's claim, calling it an "orchestrated political hit."
The new claim echoes an allegation made by a different Yale student, Deborah Ramirez, during Kavanaugh's confirmation process. Kavanaugh has denied that allegation.
The Washington Post reported Monday that Sen. Christopher Coons. D-Del., alerted the FBI of the allegation at issue.
Coons wrote to Wray on Oct. 2, requesting an "appropriate follow up" with one individual who had come to Coons with information about Kavanaugh. Although the person's name was redacted in the one-page letter, a spokesman for Coons confirmed Monday that the individual was Stier, a classmate of Kavanaugh at Yale who now leads a prominent nonpartisan group in Washington.
In the letter obtained by The Post, Coons said "several individuals" who wanted to share information with federal authorities had contacted his office, but they had "difficulty reaching anyone who will collect their information."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that the FBI was "straitjacketed" and that there needs to be an investigation.
"The failure then is inevitably having repercussions now. It was a fatal flaw in the process, and there should be investigation now," he said.
Another committee member, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said she hoped Nadler would change his mind about Kavanaugh "because what's at stake here is whether or not a witness for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, no less, lied to Congress."
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The Washington Post's Seung Min Kim, Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, Cat Zakrzewski and Robert O'Harrow Jr. contributed to this report.
This article was written by John Wagner and Mike DeBonis, reporters for The Washington Post.