STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump took questions from reporters today as he attends a meeting of the United Nations in New York. And they included a question relating to tomorrow's Senate hearing, when lawmakers hear from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and also from Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him decades ago of sexual assault.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The Republicans could not be nicer, could not be more respectful to the process, certainly could not be more respectful to the woman. And I'm OK with that. I think I might have pushed it forward a lot faster.
INSKEEP: White House spokesman Raj Shah joins us on the line to discuss this.
Mr. Shah, welcome back the program.
RAJ SHAH: Steve, thanks for having me on.
INSKEEP: Have Republicans really been respectful, given their eagerness to wrap this up and vote on Kavanaugh before the election?
SHAH: Well, let's step back and look at this process and place this all in context. Ms. Ford - or Dr. Ford brought her allegation in a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein in July. Dianne Feinstein sat on this information for well over a month, maybe about - nearly two months. She didn't bring it up in one-on-one...
INSKEEP: She felt that she was observing confidentiality. Right. Go on.
SHAH: Maybe. But either she or her office leaked this story. And eventually, the confidentiality of this woman was not kept. So to do this at the eleventh hour and then, you know, make all sorts of demands about the process, we don't think, are fair. The lawyers for Dr. Ford have had several concessions made to them based on the committee and how they're proceeding with the hearing tomorrow. She asked to be heard. Her attorneys said she wanted to be heard, and the committee is accommodating that.
INSKEEP: Well, let's just be clear. You're correct that the committee has made some accommodations. There's been some negotiation here. But speaking factually, there is no eleventh hour. The only eleventh hour is Republicans wanting to finish before the election. There's no particular legal reason that the vote has to be held today or next week even next month.
SHAH: There's not a legal - hang on, Steve. There's not a legal reason. But this letter was sent to the FBI after the markup hearing. This isn't even, you know, before the hearing. This is after the hearings, after all public testimony, after all the meetings, after all the written questionnaires. So it is literally the eleventh hour.
INSKEEP: So let's hear something else that President Trump has said in the last couple of days. He spoke on Tuesday, also in New York, about a second accuser. Deborah Ramirez, we'll remember, is her name. And she, in The New Yorker, accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct at a party, when she'd been drinking and it appeared that he'd been drinking and they were both students at Yale. And here's what President Trump said about that.
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TRUMP: The second accuser has nothing. The second accuser doesn't even know - she thinks maybe it could have been him, maybe not. She admits that she was drunk. She admits time lapses.
INSKEEP: Raj Shah, let's be frank as citizens. It's bad enough that, because of the reality of this situation, that the evidence comes out in bits and pieces. And we get one story and then another story and different parts of the story. It's hard to get a sense of the whole. But why on earth is the president of the United States picking out bits and pieces of evidence and weighing that evidence in that kind of language?
SHAH: Well, I think this process has been politicized from the very start. If you looked at that and you...
INSKEEP: But why is the president participating in that?
SHAH: Steve, please let me answer the question. The president is commenting on the story in The New Yorker. The New Yorker's own story states that this individual has gaps in her memory. The New York Times reported that as recently as a few weeks ago, she was calling friends and saying that she could not place Brett Kavanaugh necessarily at the party based on her memory and wasn't sure that he committed this act. And then she consulted an attorney that she was put in touch with by Senate Democrats on the committee and, after six days, came forward with this allegation.
So that is the reference that he was making. And I think that that's a very fair point. It seems like, in the last few days, there's been a public back and forth between her attorney and the committee, where they're requesting information and evidence about her allegations. And her attorney has basically referred them to The New Yorker.
INSKEEP: Well, we heard from John Clune, who is a lawyer for Ms. Ramirez, on this program earlier today. He said there's no political motivation to what she is saying. And he also responded to the president's remarks. Let's listen to some of that.
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JOHN CLUNE: Well, you know, as somebody who works in sexual violence, it's pretty disturbing to hear the commander in chief pretty much mocking a person who has reported being a victim of sexual assault. But more than that, he's making his conclusions based on information that, you know, he apparently has read in the media. And this is exactly why that he needs to order an investigation into what happened, both for Debbie Ramirez's case and also in the case of Dr. Ford.
INSKEEP: Given the president's distrust of the media, should the FBI look into this instead?
SHAH: Well, actually, if you look at what people in similar situations have said - and I think I would point to Senator Joe Biden when he was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said, quote, "the last thing I will point out, the next person who refers to an FBI report as being worth anything obviously doesn't understand anything. FBI explicitly does not, in this case or any other case, reach a conclusion, period - period."
INSKEEP: Well, let's...
SHAH: That was...
INSKEEP: Wait a minute. Raj Shah, you...
SHAH: ...Senator Biden as the chairman of the...
INSKEEP: Raj Shah...
INSKEEP: ...You are quoting him correctly but partially. This has been a widely circulated video clip...
SHAH: That's correct.
INSKEEP: ...Among conservatives. And what Biden was saying in that quote, when you hear the fuller quote, is - what the FBI does is interview people and gather facts and leave the conclusions to the senators, which sounds reasonable. Why not have professional fact-gatherers, professional interviewers, professional weighers (ph) of evidence gather the information so the Senate can make the decision that they are empowered to make?
SHAH: What the FBI does is it takes information from individuals for background investigation files in a private setting and in a confidential way. This process has been blown out into the public because the Senate Democrats leaked Dr. Ford's identity and leaked her story to the news media. Now that it's out in the public, Judge Kavanaugh has demanded and asked for a hearing. He's actually offered information to the committee under oath in interviews under the penalty of perjury for false statements. He's not hiding from this. He wants a public hearing to clear his name, and he's ready to do this tomorrow.
INSKEEP: I want to ask about a couple of possibilities here. One possibility, of course, is that the two witnesses testify tomorrow and people begin to get a clearer sense than many people feel they have now that Kavanaugh is guilty of some offense. In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, people were asked about this possibility. And there are differences of opinion depending on your partisan identification. But 54 percent of Republicans said that, even if Kavanaugh is guilty of what he's accused of, he should still be confirmed. They feel the confirmation is that important or that the crime is not that serious. I'd like to know, does the president think that Kavanaugh should be confirmed regardless of what the Senate may find?
SHAH: Well, the president knows Judge Kavanaugh, believes Judge Kavanaugh, believes that he's a fine man. He's said this several times publicly. And he believes in the judge's denials. We all do. This is a man of high caliber and high character who's treated women with a great deal of respect throughout many parts of his life. His clerks have spoken out about how he's mentored them, helped them. And you know, we don't believe at all that he is a man who could have and did do this.
INSKEEP: But there is the question. It's at issue. It's being investigated. Should he be confirmed even if he is guilty?
SHAH: Should he (laughter)...
INSKEEP: Does the president believe that?
SHAH: I would - I haven't asked him about that. But the point here is that he is not. He is not. And so you know, a false hypothetical is not something that we should address here. Judge Kavanaugh did not do this. He was very clear and unequivocal in his denials under penalty of perjury. He is not mincing words. He's telling the truth. He knows the truth, and he's standing up for his word. And he's going to tell the country about this tomorrow.
INSKEEP: Raj Shah, thanks for taking the time. I really appreciate it.
SHAH: Thanks a lot, Steve.
INSKEEP: Raj Shah is a White House spokesman. NPR's Domenico Montanaro, our lead political editor, is in our studios. He's been listening along with us.
Domenico, good morning.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: What did you hear there?
MONTANARO: Well, obviously, you've got Raj Shah saying that the president still believes in Kavanaugh and that they don't think that an FBI investigation is necessary. You have Republicans really trying to get this nomination through while walking this line of trying to be, quote, unquote, "respectful" of Christine Blasey Ford. It's a very difficult line to walk. And obviously, he sidestepped your last question there about whether or not the president thinks he should be confirmed, even if he...
INSKEEP: Didn't sidestep - he didn't answer at all, actually. But yeah.
MONTANARO: Didn't answer it, right.
MONTANARO: Because they're trying to stick to this line that he didn't do anything wrong - and they're going to deny that.
INSKEEP: But this is a large difference of opinion that's exposed in this NPR poll. Isn't it? There are some people who, when asked about this, will say not that they totally dismiss the incident necessarily but they feel that even if Kavanaugh were guilty of this particular behavior, it's not serious enough to derail his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice.
MONTANARO: Right. It is a majority of Republicans, as you pointed out - 54 percent - who believe that he should be confirmed regardless. However, that's only half of Republicans, let's still say. If he were to be, you know, seen as guilty of doing these things or admitted to it, there's a whole other half of the party that wouldn't necessarily think that. And certainly, add into account the other, you know...
INSKEEP: Yeah. What do we see...
MONTANARO: ...Percentage of the people.
INSKEEP: ...When we look at Democrats or we look at independents?
MONTANARO: Right, absolutely.
INSKEEP: Are they feeling that this is a disqualifying offense if it were true?
MONTANARO: You've got 58 percent of people saying that they're closely watching these hearings. You have 59 percent of people saying that if he were to have committed these things, he should not be confirmed.
INSKEEP: I was impressed by another finding - that in spite of the partisan divisions here, in spite of the partisan passions and the fact that a lot of minds are made up, it seems like the largest percentage of people polled - just voters polled - are withholding judgment for the moment.
MONTANARO: Yeah. Right now, 42 percent of people saying that they're unsure of who's telling the truth between Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh. You have roughly a third of people saying they believe Christine Blasey Ford, about a quarter saying that they believe Kavanaugh. And that's actually a cultural shift that's kind of interesting because when you look back at polling from 1991 taken at the same time, two days before the hearing of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, fewer people believed Anita Hill than Clarence Thomas. So we have seen something of a cultural shift in believing accusers.
INSKEEP: How much political pressure are lawmakers under here in one of the last days of September?
MONTANARO: It's a tremendous amount of pressure, which is obviously why Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have decided that they're going to have a woman who's this prosecutor from Arizona do the questioning for them rather than them potentially misstepping.
INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks for your insights. Really appreciate it.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro.
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