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The meeting that changed Republicans' minds about Kavanaugh documents

If the facts are as Leahy presents -- and as best as I can tell, no Senate Republican has contested them -- it paints a rather alarming picture.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Judge Brett Kavanaugh his Supreme Court nominee, in the East Room of the White House, Monday, July 9, 2018, in...

On July 7, just two days before Donald Trump introduced Judge Brett Kavanaugh as his Supreme Court nominee, the New York Times published an interesting report about the warnings the White House received from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who was well aware of the conservative jurist's lengthy paper trail.

"Mr. McConnell is concerned," the article said, "about the volume of the documents that Judge Kavanaugh has created in his 12 years on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, as well as in his roles as White House staff secretary under President George W. Bush and assistant to Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton."

The reference to Kavanaugh's work as Bush's White House staff secretary is important because it offers a behind-the-scenes peek: the Senate GOP leader apparently saw this part of Kavanaugh's background as the sort of thing that would be scrutinized as part of a confirmation process. And yet, soon after, Senate Republicans agreed that this part of Kavanaugh's professional background would be excluded from the Judiciary Committee's document request.

So what happened? Evidently, a White House meeting happened.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), on Friday, asked White House Counsel Don McGahn for information on a pivotal July 24, 2018, meeting with Judiciary Committee Republicans that shaped their document request. Prior to the private meeting, Republican leadership seemed poised to request records that Judge Kavanaugh authored, generated, or contributed to as White House Staff Secretary.In an abrupt change of course after the meeting, Republicans refused to request any of Judge Kavanaugh's records from his three years as Staff Secretary and Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley omitted all of Kavanagh's Staff Secretary records from his request to the National Archives.Senator Leahy believes the American people deserve to know why certain staff secretary records were fair game going into the private meeting and off the table coming out.

In his press release, Leahy is quoted saying, "In the 44 years I have served in the United States Senate, I have seen 19 nominations to the Supreme Court, including the nomination of every current member of the Court. I have never before seen the White House, under either a Republican or Democratic president, usurp or direct the parameters of the Judiciary Committee's document request regarding a Supreme Court nominee. I find it troubling that the White House and Judiciary Committee Republicans are stifling transparency rather than working together to provide the necessary documents for the Senate to do its work. The American people deserve the unvarnished truth about Judge Kavanaugh."

If the facts are as Leahy presents them -- and as best as I can tell, no Senate Republican has contested them -- it paints a rather alarming picture. As the story goes, GOP senators were prepared to consider this relevant period of Kavanaugh's professional work, then there was a private White House meeting to which Democrats were not invited, and then Republicans decided to limit their areas of interest.

One need not be paranoid to find this suspicious.

I've seen some suggestions that Senate Democrats are making a strategic error by focusing on this and related procedural questions -- the sort of areas that typical Americans have no interest in -- rather than hammering away at the practical effects of Kavanaugh's far-right legal vision. If Trump's nominee has any chance of being derailed, the argument goes, it won't be over procedural issues.

Maybe not. But to make a compelling case against Kavanaugh, his detractors will need to scrutinize relevant elements of his background, and his tenure as Bush's White House staff secretary is among the most important. For some reason, Senate Republicans and the Trump White House are eager to hide this part of the judge's background -- and only this part -- from the public.

To overlook this thread, or to suggest it's not worth pulling on, would be a mistake.