Donald Trump on Monday firmly backed his supreme court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, as the FBI continued to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
But the president left open the possibility that he could change his mind about Kavanaugh, should the FBI find something disqualifying in its work, which was ordered on Friday and is scheduled to conclude just a week later.
Trump spoke at a White House Rose Garden press conference that was staged to tout his new trade deal with Canada and Mexico but which turned into a freewheeling and at times confrontational hour-long exchange with reporters.
Answering questions about the FBI investigation, the president told reporters he supported a “comprehensive” investigation but was allowing the Republican majority in the Senate to define its remit. On Monday, the New York Times reported that the White House had authorized the FBI to expand its investigation as long as the bureau finished its work by the end of the week.
“My White House will do whatever the senators want,” he said. “I’m open to whatever they want. The one thing I want is speed.”
He added: “I’m guided by the Senate. I want to make the Senate happy because ultimately they’re making the judgment.”
He spoke glowingly of Kavanaugh and lamented the hardship he said the allegations had placed on the judge’s wife and daughters. Echoing the judge’s testimony before the Senate judiciary committee last week, Trump blamed Democrats for their handling of a letter containing the initial assault accusation and, he said, for choosing to obstruct his nominee at all costs.
Trump attacked two Democrats on the committee, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Cory Booker of New Jersey, and even suggested that he had seen an unidentified Democratic senator in a “very, very bad” and somewhat compromising” situations. He did not elaborate, other than to say: “I think I’ll save it for a book like everybody else.”
Trump said he had “no plan B” if the nomination failed to pass the Senate but he insisted he had an “open mind” should the FBI investigation determine Kavanaugh lied to the committee.
His comments are unlikely to resolve debate over the scope and substance of the FBI investigation. Democrats have demanded the White House provide a copy of a written directive it sent the bureau. It has not been forthcoming.
On Sunday, FBI agents interviewed Deborah Ramirez, one of three women who have accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. Kavanaugh has vehemently denied all allegations against him.
Ramirez alleges Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party at Yale in the early 1980s. When she spoke to FBI agents, a person familiar with the matter who spoke to the Associated Press said, she provided the names of others she said could corroborate her account.
Another Yale classmate accused Kavanaugh of being untruthful in his testimony. In a statement on Sunday, Charles Ludington, who now teaches at North Carolina State University, said he was “deeply troubled by what has been a blatant mischaracterization by Brett himself of his drinking at Yale”. Ludington said he was a friend at Yale, when Kavanaugh was “a frequent drinker, and a heavy drinker”.
“On many occasions I heard Brett slur his words and saw him staggering from alcohol consumption, not all of which was beer,” Ludington said. “When Brett got drunk, he was often belligerent and aggressive.”
Asked if he would pull Kavanaugh’s nomination if it was found to have mischaracterized the extent to which he drank, Trump, a teetotaler, said: “I don’t think he [lied] … He was really strong on the fact that he drank a lot.”
“I watched him,” he added. “I was surprised at how vocal he was about the fact that he liked beer. And he’s had some difficulty. I’m not a drinker. I can honestly say I never had a beer in my life. It’s one of my only good traits: I don’t drink.”
Drawing laughs from the audience, he said: “Can you imagine if I had – what a mess I’d be? I’d be the world’s worst.”
In the Senate judiciary committee hearing last Thursday, the first woman to accuse Kavanaugh, Dr Christine Blasey Ford, detailed the attempted rape she said happened at a house party in 1982.
Ford has not been contacted by the FBI since then, according to a member of her team. On Monday morning Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Julie Swetnick, said his client had not been contacted either.
Posting a portion of the statement in which Swetnick says Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge were present at parties in the same early 1980s years at which drunken girls were gang-raped, Avenatti said Trump was “purposely preventing the truth from being known”.
“This is a threat to our very democracy,” he said.
Judge, who Ford said was present during her alleged assault, denies the accusations.
At the White House, Trump said he would be fine if FBI agents interviewed Kavanaugh and all of the accusers, including Swetnick.
Of Swetnick, he said: “I heard that the third one has – I have no idea if this is true – has very little credibility. If there is any credibility, interview the third one.”
In Boston, protesters gathered ahead of a speech by Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who demanded the FBI investigation after voting for the nomination to proceed.
Ed Markey, the junior Massachusetts senator, said: “Dr Ford was empowered and she was courageous. She had nothing to gain and everything to lose. She stepped forward to tell her story. Now others are stepping forward to tell their stories about Brett Kavanaugh.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, rising stars of the left, also spoke. Flake was due to address an event staged by Forbes on Monday afternoon.
Melissa Tully and Mary Power, both from Hingham, Massachusetts, were holding “#StopKavanaugh” signs. Tully said she had experienced sexual harassment in college, but “nothing compared to what Ford experienced”.
Tully said: “I think Judge Kavanaugh did not answer many questions directly and disassembled questions in his response. As a judge he knows the difference between the word refute and the phrase ‘I don’t remember being there’.”
Kavanaugh, she said, did not have the demeanor of someone “fit to be on the supreme court”.