It could prove to be a risky change of course for U.S. President Donald Trump.
On Monday, three days into a special week-long FBI background check of embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the White House gave investigators free rein to interview anyone they deem relevant — as opposed to just the four names Trump's staff had reportedly signed off on originally.
The new orders mean agents can explore potentially critical aspects of the allegations against Kavanaugh that were previously deemed off-limits — and Trump will have to sit back and hope they don't turn up new information that could torpedo the judge's confirmation.
The background check was ordered last Friday, a day after dramatic testimony before the Senate judiciary committee from Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the California research psychologist who says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in 1982 when they were teenagers in Maryland.
An angry and combative Kavanaugh denied her allegations, as well as those of two other women who have accused him of sexual misconduct.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday. He has agreed to let the FBI interview anybody it wants as part of its background investigation into Kavanaugh. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
Republican members agreed to delay advancing Kavanaugh's nomination by a week, pending an FBI investigation that Trump initially insisted would be "narrow" in scope before caving to Democratic demands that it not be restricted by anything other than time.
"This is an excellent move. It's how it should be," said former FBI executive Lauren C. Anderson. "The FBI needs to effectively be able to do its job and provide the information that the White House needs."
Here's what investigators are expected to explore with their newfound freedom.
Question 3rd accuser
The White House counsel's office originally authorized the FBI to speak with four witnesses: Kavanaugh's high school friends Mark Judge and PJ Smyth, Ford's high school friend Leland Keyser, and Kavanaugh's Yale classmate Deborah Ramirez, who alleges Kavanaugh waved his penis in her face without her consent at a college party.
That original list didn't include Julie Swetnick, a third accuser who signed a sworn affidavit alleging that as a teenager Kavanaugh attended parties where girls were gang raped. Swetnick said Kavanaugh also plied girls with alcohol to try to take advantage of them sexually.
Julie Swetnick is one of the women who has publicly accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. (Michael Avenatti via Associated Press)
Under the new White House guidance, her account could be part of the FBI's probe.
"In my opinion, any woman who has an allegation and speaks specifically about an alleged assault should be heard," said Anderson, who worked at the bureau for nearly 30 years.
She said the original parameters "tied the FBI's hands" from effectively investigating, but that no longer appears to be the case.
Trump told reporters on Monday he was fine with FBI agents also speaking with Swetnick.
"It wouldn't bother me at all," he said, though he strongly questioned her credibility.
NBC News aired an excerpt of an interview with Swetnick on Monday and noted some inconsistencies with her written statement, including about her allegation that Kavanaugh spiked girls' drinks.
Explore new leads
Agents will now also be able to follow relevant leads where an interviewee points to a more informed witness, said Mary Ellen O'Toole, a former FBI criminal profiler who has worked on many sex-crimes cases.
"You talk to a particular individual and they say, 'You need to talk to Mr. or Mrs. Smith. They have a lot more information than I do.' Then it's logical the agent will have to go and talk to that person."
Democrats on the judiciary committee have suggested 24 people and entities they believe the FBI should interview — "at a minimum."
This undated photo provided by Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence shows Deborah Ramirez. She recently went public to the New Yorker with allegations concerning Kavanaugh while both were at Yale University in the 1980s. (Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence via Associated Press)
Anderson said agents may seek out Yale classmates of Ramirez's if they might substantiate allegations about Kavanaugh's belligerent and abusive drinking in college.
"Logic would say you interview all the women who have made allegations. That opens up the possibility, in the case of Ms. Ramirez, to identify the names of other Yale classmates that may speak to [Kavanaugh's drinking]."
Investigating the 53-year-old judge's drinking history was reportedly outside the original bounds set by the White House.
Former assistant FBI director Chris Swecker said he doubts agents will "waste their time" on any line of questioning concerning boozy parties, as the core issue remains sexual assault.
"The press is making an issue about whether he blacked out or how much he drank," said Swecker, who frequently appears as a Fox News commentator. "That he drank beer and was underage — that's not the real issue."
While Anderson doesn't expect agents will seek out witnesses or former classmates to expressly ask about Kavanaugh's drinking, the relaxed FBI restrictions allow them to bring up the subject of alcohol with witnesses they do decide to speak with.
Watch: Kavanaugh gets combative with senator when asked about excessive drinking
U.S. Supreme Court nominee testifies that he does not have a drinking problem. 0:50
The fact is, she said, Kavanaugh's alleged excessive drinking has been a component in all three claims by Ford, Ramirez and Swetnick.
"From a purely investigative standpoint in a background investigation, that is a very reasonable and logical thing to be asking about," she said. "It reflects on his credibility and his candour and his trustworthiness."
Kavanaugh repeatedly dodged questions about his drinking from Democrats on the judiciary committee. But former college friends have told reporters he was a "sloppy drunk" who could be aggressive, and a recent report from a Yale classmate alleged Kavanaugh once threw a beer at a bar patron's face and started a fight over a "semi-hostile remark."
The Safeway encounter
Former FBI officials believe another reasonable avenue to follow up on is Ford's testimony that Kavanaugh's high school friend, Mark Judge, was "nervous" and not willing to speak with Ford when she ran into him at a Safeway grocery store in 1982. The encounter was about six to eight weeks after Ford says Judge witnessed Kavanaugh sexually assault her at a house party.
Ford said Judge worked at the supermarket at the time. NBC News reported that under the original White House instructions, the FBI wasn't to ask Safeway to verify whether Judge was employed there.
"If they have specified they don't want you going to Safeway, they cannot go to Safeway," Anderson said. Now that the White House has revised its guidance, she expects investigators to run checks on employment records.
Confirming the time period Judge may have worked at the supermarket could help resolve when in the summer of 1982 the party happened.
It's also possible Judge will confirm that information for investigators, Anderson said.
Ford was not on the list of four witnesses named by the White House, though she has been vocal about wanting an FBI investigation into her allegations.
Ford had not, as of Monday night, revealed whether she had been interviewed. But former FBI assistant director Ron Hosko said he wouldn't consider the investigation complete until she has also been questioned.
"I think they would go to … Ms. Ford to do a detailed interview of her to see if there's any other information that gives them leads about anyone else who might have been at that place."
Ford wasn't originally on the list of witnesses the White House said the FBI could interview. (Melina Mara/Getty Images)
The FBI can also attempt to locate the house where the alleged assault occurred, using Ford's description and real estate records.
Unlike members of the Senate judiciary committee, FBI officials said, agents don't approach their interviews with partisan interests in mind. They're trained to extract the most information possible.
FBI background reports merely gather facts and narratives without judging witnesses' credibility, Hosko said. That will ultimately be left to the White House's discretion next week.
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