‘Why didn’t she bring it up?’: Feinstein under scrutiny for handling of allegations against Kavanaugh

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Twenty-six years after she won a Senate seat in the “Year of the Woman,” Dianne Feinstein stands as a central figure in deciding the fate of Brett M. Kavanaugh, whose Supreme Court nomination is in jeopardy after a woman accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school.

Feinstein has been a lightning rod for loud criticism from President Trump and quieter frustration from some fellow Democrats after she disclosed that she received a letter in July from the woman that she did not share with Senate colleagues and federal law enforcement until last week.

The episode has put the 85-year-old California senator, who is seeking a sixth term in November, in the middle of a fast-moving and explosive cultural, political and social firestorm charged by forces of the #MeToo movement and Trump’s divisive presidency.

As Kavanaugh forges ahead and denies the allegations, Feinstein is under some of the most intense scrutiny of her career, with Trump bluntly accusing her Tuesday of timing her bombshell revelation to sink his nominee.

“When Senator Feinstein sat with Judge Kavanaugh for a long period of time — a long, long meeting — she had this letter. Why didn’t she bring it up?” Trump said. “Why didn’t the Democrats bring it up then? Because they obstruct and because they resist. That’s the name of their campaign against me.”

Now, Feinstein faces a legacy-defining moment in a long career that has made her one of the most powerful women in the country. As the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Feinstein is helping her party prepare for an unprecedented public hearing Monday at which Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, have been invited to testify.

But as she plots the next steps, Feinstein is dealing with questions about her recent ones — most notably her decision to wait weeks before sharing Ford’s letter, only issuing a cryptic statement last Thursday when word surfaced of its existence. The revelation came almost a week after Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings had wrapped up.

“I will tell you that I’m glad we’re going to have a hearing and get to the bottom of it. It’d have been nice to have it done before,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is running for reelection in a state that Trump won handily in 2016. “But you know, I wasn’t in her shoes.”

Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee were tepid about Feinstein. “She did her best,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (Hawaii). “I can’t fault her,” said Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.). “Extremely difficult circumstances,” noted Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.)

Privately, some Democratic senators wished that Feinstein had come to them sooner with the allegation, according to a Democrat with direct knowledge of internal Senate dynamics. The Democrat spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

It was late July when Feinstein received the letter from Ford detailing the allegations from decades ago against Kavanaugh. Ford is a constituent of Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), who relayed the letter to Feinstein.

Ford was insistent on confidentiality, and her name is redacted in the letter. Democrats on the Judiciary Committee learned of the letter during an emergency meeting Wednesday night off the Senate floor, after a report by the Intercept.

On Sunday, The Washington Post published a first-person account in which Ford alleged that Kavanaugh drunkenly pinned her to a bed on her back, groped her and put his hand over her mouth to stifle her screams at a house party in the early 1980s, when the two were in high school. 

Feinstein says she sought to honor Ford’s request for privacy, and Ford’s attorney, Debra Katz, says she believes Feinstein did that. On Tuesday, Feinstein said she explored ways to discreetly investigate the accusation.

“We were looking for a way to get it investigated by an outside investigator,” she told reporters, explaining that Democrats considered several options but realized that any action would have alerted Republicans and violated Ford’s request to remain anonymous.

“I did not know whether this woman would come forward or not,” Feinstein said.

Republicans remain determined to confirm Kavanaugh, and in their effort to win the war of public opinion they have singled out Feinstein, and by extension Democrats, as villains, repeatedly arguing that they are deliberately roiling the proceedings as Kavanaugh’s nomination process reaches its final stage.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Tuesday that Feinstein “decided to spring it at the end,” referring to her simply as the ranking member of the committee.

“I don’t know why she sat on that letter as long as she did,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.) the third-ranking Republican senator. “It just seems to me, at least, that if these allegations, if they took them seriously, that they would have made more of an attempt to get this into the discussion” during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.

But Feinstein’s decision to keep the accusation away from her own party, at a moment when liberals were applying immense pressure to defeat Kavanaugh and moderate Democratic senators were debating whether to support him, triggered second-guessing. Now, several want to turn the page.

“I’m not going to go back and revisit that,” said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who represents a Republican state and is up for reelection in 2020. “I just think we need to deal with where we are now, not where we might have been.”

Even before Ford’s accusation, Feinstein’s navigation of the Kavanaugh nomination had stirred controversy. After she apologized to Kavanaugh for the protesters in the room during his confirmation hearings, Brian Fallon, the head of a liberal anti-Kavanaugh group, called it “ridiculous.”

Feinstein was first elected to the Senate in 1992, when the number of women elected to the Senate tripled in an election the year after Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite allegations that he had sexually harassed a subordinate, Anita Hill.

Feinstein’s challenger this November is Kevin De León, a state lawmaker running to her left who finished a distant second in the all-party primary. He slammed Feinstein last week for “failure of leadership” and questioned why she waited to give information about the accusation to the FBI.

The Democrat familiar with internal Senate dynamics said that in the meeting when Feinstein briefed her Democratic colleagues on the letter last week, they swiftly encouraged her to refer it to federal authorities. She did so last Wednesday.

Now, Feinstein, like many Democrats, is calling on the FBI to look into the allegations more deeply before the Senate proceeds with its hearing next week. Republicans have not been receptive to such a delay.

Some Democrats have privately questioned how much progress had been made on the Judiciary even now, as a woman — Feinstein — sits as the ranking Democrat. They cited Hill’s statement last week calling for the panel to develop a new process to investigate complaints of sexual harassment and assault.

Feinstein has been a magnet for attention on Capitol Hill this week. While her aides and have sought to shuttle her efficiently to and from meetings and votes, she has stopped to speak with crowds of reporters patiently, sometimes putting her aides on edge, as Feinstein, the oldest member of the Senate, has been known to make comments that sometimes stir confusion.

On Tuesday, she created some confusion about whether she believed that Ford’s account was fully credible. She told reporters by day’s end, “I believe she is credible.”

Tom Hamburger, Gabriel Pogrund, Seung Min Kim and Erica Werner contributed to this report.



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