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Why it matters that the White House limited the scope of Kavanaugh scrutiny

Donald Trump said that it when it came to Brett Kavanaugh's re-opened background check, the FBI would have "free reign." Evidently, that's not true.
A crest of the Federal Bureau of Investi
A crest of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is seen 03 August 2007 inside the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington, DC.

On Friday afternoon, the White House issued a statement from Donald Trump that appeared to address the demands of key U.S. senators on examining Brett Kavanaugh's background. "I've ordered the FBI to conduct a supplemental investigation to update Judge Kavanaugh's file," the president's statement read. "As the Senate has requested, this update must be limited in scope and completed in less than one week."

We now know the three key words were "limited in scope."

NBC News reported on Saturday that the White House counsel's office had placed significant constraints on the FBI's scrutiny of the controversial Supreme Court nominee. Julie Swetnick's claims, for example, would be ignored. There would also be no review of Kavanaugh's drinking habits. The White House counsel's office, NBC News' report added, "has given the FBI a list of witnesses they are permitted to interview," it's a rather narrow list.

Trump assured the public on Saturday that the bureau would have "free reign" in its investigation, but here was clear evidence to the contrary. NBC News' report was bolstered by a similar report from the New York Times, which said the president's team is "helping direct the scope of the background check ... working in concert with Senate Republicans." The Wall Street Journal had a piece pointing in the same direction.

Trump denounced the reporting, saying he wants FBI officials "to interview whoever they deem appropriate, at their discretion." So, which is it? As of yesterday afternoon, it appears the bureau is following the White House's directions, not the president's tweet.

The FBI has received no new instructions from the White House about how to proceed with its weeklong investigation of sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a senior U.S. official and another source familiar with the matter tell NBC News.According to the sources, the president's Saturday night tweet saying he wants the FBI to interview whoever agents deem appropriate has not changed the limits imposed by the White House counsel's office on the FBI investigation....

So much for "free reign."

At an institutional level, the weekend's developments offered an interesting political science experiment: should the FBI follow the instructions of the White House or a tweet from a president who may not fully understand what his own administration's position is? It now appears the former trumps the latter, which reinforces concerns that the president isn't fully in charge.

Indeed, in a follow-up tweet yesterday afternoon, Trump adopted a different posture, complaining that Democrats "are starting to put out the word that the 'time' and 'scope' of FBI looking into Judge Kavanaugh and witnesses is not enough. Hello! For them, it will never be enough."

The purpose of the "Hello!" wasn't altogether clear.

Strange presidential rhetoric notwithstanding, one of the principal reasons to have the FBI examination is to help senators have a more complete picture of Kavanaugh's background before deciding whether to confirm him to the Supreme Court. With the White House placing significant constraints on the FBI's work -- the list of people to be interviewed currently stands at just four individuals -- it will be difficult to have full confidence in the end result.

In theory, Republican senators who endorsed the one-week delay could announce at any time that they'll oppose Kavanaugh's confirmation without a more thorough FBI review, though it's unclear whether any of them are prepared to take such a step.

As for the bigger picture, it's worth emphasizing that if Kavanaugh's backers were confident that a detailed FBI examination would work in his favor, the White House wouldn't find it necessary to place significant constraints on the bureau's background check.

The nominee's critics have been asking, "What are Republicans trying to hide?" for a couple of months. The salience of the question continues to grow.