Trump only slowly built up a critique of Ford’s allegation, and initially avoided personal attacks. On September 21, five days after she was first named in The Washington Post, Trump questioned why Ford would not have filed a police report at the time of the incident. (There are many reasons that victims of sexual assaults don’t immediately or ever make reports, as many people pointed out after his statement.)
During a press conference on September 26, Trump called the allegations against Kavanaugh a “big fat con,” but he focused his ire on Democrats, who he said were only interested in derailing the nomination, while confusingly expressing openness to hearing Ford’s testimony. “I’m gonna see what happens tomorrow. I’m gonna be watching … I’m gonna see what’s said,” he said.
Two days later, after the testimony, Kavanaugh’s nomination seemed to be moving forward—until Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and frequent critic of Trump’s, cut a deal with Democrats in which he pledged not to vote for Kavanaugh on the Senate floor until the FBI had investigated the allegations.
The White House was once again surprisingly tempered in its public reaction. Trump didn’t bristle and didn’t take issue with Flake’s idea. “I’m going to let the Senate handle that,” Trump said during a brief appearance with the president of Chile. “They’ll make their decisions. They’ve been doing a good job and very professional.”
Flake’s maneuver drew conservative ire at the time, but it turned out to be a stratagem. Reopening the FBI investigation gave wavering senators a chill-out period and a way to create distance from the decision: If the FBI didn’t turn up anything incriminating, they could defend a vote for Kavanaugh, citing a body more impartial than the Senate Judiciary Committee.
If the FBI didn’t turn up anything incriminating. One way to make sure the report would come up clean was to make sure that its scope was limited—and despite Trump’s comments about deferring to the Senate on an open-ended investigation, it was the White House that circumscribed the probe. Even as the president was professing equanimity publicly, the administration was guaranteeing that the probe would be of limited breadth and depth. The FBI was instructed not to examine whether Kavanaugh was truthful about his alcohol consumption in his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee (Democrats say he was not), nor to pursue new allegations.
Faced with anger over these limitations, the White House once again made nice publicly. Taking questions from reporters on Monday, Trump said, “I want them to do a very comprehensive investigation,” and said that contra the existing instructions, agents should speak to Julie Swetnick, a third woman who alleged sexual misconduct, and to Kavanaugh himself. The White House said that afternoon the probe would expand.