Dems to challenge Kavanaugh for White House records
President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee is walking into the middle of a political firestorm over his work for former President George W. Bush.
Access to paperwork from Brett Kavanaugh’s years as a White House lawyer and staff secretary has become a lightning rod in the nomination fight.
The issue will take center stage as he sits down with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, this week.
Both senators are expected to press Kavanaugh on whether he’ll support releasing all of his Bush-era documents, which they say would shed light on what he thinks about controversial matters such as terrorism policy, health care and executive authority.
Schumer said he intends to ask Kavanaugh directly why he isn’t publicly calling for releasing the paperwork during their closed-door sit-down.
“He can’t duck it. … He should have said already that he wants them released if he’s an open, fair, wonderful man Supreme Court justice that he’s trying to portray himself to be,” Schumer told reporters during a weekly leadership press conference.
Kavanaugh’s meetings with Feinstein and Schumer — expected to take place on Monday and Tuesday, respectively — will mark his toughest stops, so far, on his Capitol Hill charm offensive.
So far his meetings have been limited to senators who support him or are believed likely to back him. The three Democrats who have sat down so far, Sens. Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), also supported Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee.
A Senate Democratic aide indicated that Democrats, including Schumer and Feinstein, were scheduling sit-downs with Kavanaugh despite their initial reluctance in part so they could urge him to support releasing all the documents from his time in the White House.
At 53 years old, Kavanaugh, if confirmed, is expected to give Republicans a fifth conservative judge on the Supreme Court, tilting it to the right for decades.
But on Capitol Hill the fight over his nomination has largely devolved into a battle over his voluminous paper trail and what documents should be handed over to the Judiciary Committee and ultimately made public for his vetting.
Democrats are criticizing Republicans for pushing forward with the nomination before the National Archives can hand over paperwork Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has requested from Kavanaugh’s work as a White House lawyer.
Grassley has already set Kavanaugh’s hearing to start on Sept. 4 and Republicans hope to have him on the bench before the start of the high court’s term in October. But the National Archives has warned it won’t be able to hand over more than 900,000 pages on Kavanaugh until the end of October.
Republicans say a legal team for Bush is reviewing the same documents to produce them at a faster rate. That has also angered Democrats who say a team headed by a onetime Bush aide and Kavanaugh colleague will allow the GOP to cherry-pick what information is made public.
“When you see weird swirls in the water, you know something big is moving under the surface. And these are weird swirls in the water,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “So the question is what’s going on here? What is the big thing under the surface?”
The Bush team has handed over more than 238,000 pages of documents from Kavanaugh’s time as a White House lawyer to the Judiciary Committee.
While Democrats have been able to raise some concerns about the nominee, they argue the trove actually reveals little about Kavanaugh’s judicial philosophy. In one tranche of emails, for example, an invitation to Heritage Foundation events is repeated over tens of thousands of pages.
Democrats have also accused Republicans of bypassing the normal process on Supreme Court nominees by allowing the Bush team to pass documents to Grassley.
Republicans counter that Democrats are trying to go on a fishing expedition for Bush-era documents that are “sensitive” for the administration but not relevant to Kavanaugh’s legal thinking or the work he was doing in the White House.
Grassley is accusing Democrats of trying to “manipulate” voters by accusing Republicans of hiding information on Kavanaugh.
“I got a lot of questions at my town meetings across Iowa over the last week or so about the Supreme Court, but hardly any mention of this document issue cooked up by Washington insiders,” he said.
Republicans say Grassley’s request for documents from Kavanaugh’s work as a White House counsel for Bush alone is estimated to total more than 900,000 pages. In addition, Grassley and Feinstein requested Kavanaugh’s work from former independent counsel Ken Starr’s probe on former President Clinton. And records from his decade on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will be given to senators.
GOP Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) mocked Democrats after his meeting with Kavanaugh, asking if they would be “looking at his 4th grade essays?”
But Democrats are getting a boost from an unusual ally in the fight, the National Archives.
The National Archives in a 13-paragraph statement defended the process it uses to review and release documents and distanced itself from the Bush legal team.
Giving documents directly from a president’s own lawyers to the Judiciary Committee, the agency said, “is something that has never happened before.”
“This effort by former President Bush does not represent the National Archives or the George W. Bush Presidential Library. The Senate Judiciary Committee is publicly releasing some of these documents on its website, which also do not represent the National Archives,” the Archives added.
Democrats seized on the statement even as they also threatened to sue the Archives if it didn’t comply with their Freedom of Information Act request for documents, including from Kavanaugh’s three-year stint as Bush’s staff secretary.
Democrats say those documents are crucial to understanding Kavanaugh’s thinking on some of the most controversial issues of the time, including torture and surveillance.
Grassley was open to a deal for a limited search of Kavanaugh’s staff secretary records but Republicans say Democrats refused.
There are no signs the two parties will be able to reach an agreement.
Grassley doubled down on refusing to ask for Kavanaugh’s staff secretary documents in a letter sent Saturday to Feinstein and Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.).
Grassley said that after initially refusing to negotiate, Feinstein’s office pulled a “political stunt” on Friday and sent him a list of potential search terms to look for in Kavanaugh’s staff secretary documents.
“Unfortunately, it is too late in the process to reopen the possibility of requesting staff secretary documents,” he added. “Their actions evidence bad faith and politicized what could have been-and should have been-a bipartisan process.”