A new in-depth account of the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh places renewed scrutiny on a lawmaker who found herself reluctantly at the center of it all: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the long-serving California Democrat.
In the summer of 2018, Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was handed the enormous responsibility of deciding how to handle Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Kavanuagh sexually assaulted her while they were in high school.
In her book Supreme Ambition, Washington Post reporter Ruth Marcus traces the weeks-long journey of Ford’s story from close-held secret to public spectacle, and details a series of key decisions from Feinstein that shaped the painful way the process played out. After receiving the letter detailing Ford’s allegations, Feinstein promised her total confidentiality, then proceeded to sit on the account for weeks, declining to investigate it further or inform her Senate colleagues about the existence of the allegation until much later—at which point they became so alarmed they urged her to act.
“You cannot keep this to yourself anymore,” Marcus reports the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) told Feinstein. Her silence, said Durbin, had been a “huge mistake.”
Ultimately, the news that Feinstein had kept the Kavanaugh-related accusation to herself was reported by The Intercept on Sept. 12, sparking the public drama that Ford’s allegation became.
“No one, certainly not Ford or Kavanaugh, was well served by the way the story ultimately emerged,” writes Marcus. “There had to have been a better way.”
Feinstein’s role as the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee has long been a source of consternation among Washington Democrats who fear that her accommodating nature and reverence for tradition make her ill-suited for the bare-knuckled nature of modern court fights. The senator has faced particular criticism for not doing more to gum up the works on the fast-paced confirmation of Trump judges and for resisting procedural reforms that would allow Democrats to influence the judiciary should they regain power.
“Senator Feinstein’s approach towards guiding the Democrats on the judiciary committee is past its expiration date,” said Brian Fallon, the founder of the progressive group Demand Justice and a former top Senate staffer. “Her instincts were honed during an era of the Senate that has long since passed. In a time when Republicans are violating norms and using cutthroat tactics to architect a takeover of the third branch of government, Feinstein remains too passive and too eager to extend Republicans the benefit of the doubt.”
But Feinstein has her defenders too. And in the case of Ford, many of them argue that the senator did her best with an impossible juggling act: respecting the privacy of an alleged sexual assault victim with the intense importance of a Supreme Court confirmation fight. That Kavanaugh ended up on the court, they add, is no fault of the senator’s.
Marcus’ book never makes such a claim. But it does lay out several areas where Feinstein’s handling of the nomination battle was privately second-guessed. Feinstein, Marcus wrote, “insisted on reading every word in every news release that went out from committee Democrats,” hampering their ability to respond to Republicans in real time or set their own media narrative. A spokesperson for Feinstein told The Daily Beast that the senator “reviews press releases that go out under her name but has never suggested she should review press releases from any other office.”
She also quotes an anonymous Democratic aide complaining that Feinstein “refused to sign off on allowing investigators on the Judiciary Committee to go out and investigate Kavanaugh.” Though Feinstein’s office disputed that such a strategy was illogical (arguing that they risked looking like they were digging for dirt if they didn’t abide by such a rule) the aide deemed this the party’s “original sin.”
“The rule became that the committee was not allowed to reach out to anyone who didn’t reach out to us first or who we didn’t have an existing connection with,” the Democratic aide told Marcus. “Senator Feinstein thought it was unseemly for us to be investigating him. The nominations team didn’t do any investigating except for the people who came to us. It was astonishing.” Feinstein’s office said in response that “the committee received some anonymous allegations with no names attached that weren’t able to be investigated for that reason.”
But the most critical portions of Marcus’ book are saved for Feinstein’s handling of the Ford letter. Marcus reports that after relaying the letter to Feinstein, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) did not hear back from the Senator’s office for six weeks. Indeed, Marcus writes that Feinstein “appears to have done nothing” in the period between when she first learned of Ford’s allegation from Eshoo and when her office received the letter itself.
“If Feinstein were concerned or alarmed by Eshoo’s information, she did not show it,” writes Marcus. “Indeed, she did not even mention the Eshoo call to her staff or reveal the existence of a potential allegation against Kavanaugh to them.”
Once she read Ford’s letter, Marcus reports, Feinstein contacted her quickly: they spoke for 10 to 15 minutes, during which the senator asked several fact-based questions and promised to follow up shortly with next steps. Ford got off the phone with the impression Feinstein was taking the allegation very seriously.
After this call, however, Feinstein reportedly gave her staff an “impossible” directive to follow. She told them that she wanted Ford’s allegations looked into, but stressed that it couldn’t be done by the Democratic Judiciary staff—so as to avoid the perception that it was a partisan hunt for dirt, something to which Feinstein was already sensitive.
And despite Feinstein’s commitment to bipartisanship, she felt she could not alert the Judiciary panel’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), of the allegations because of her ironclad promise to Ford that she would maintain her confidentiality at all costs—so strict that Feinstein threatened to fire anyone who risked that promise.
In response to Marcus’ reporting, a spokesman for Feinstein pointed to the fact that the senator has said “many times that she was honoring Blasey Ford’s request for confidentiality” and said the Judiciary Committee conducted a “full review” of Kavanaugh.
“Once it became clear her story was becoming public, she informed other members and sent the letter to the FBI,” said Tom Mentzer, Feinstein’s spokesperson. He added that Feinstein only learned of the allegations when she received the letter from Eshoo’s office and was on the phone with Ford the next day.
“Feinstein honored Blasey Ford’s request for confidentiality and said that Dr. Blasey would need to come forward for the FBI to investigate her allegations,” said Mentzer.
Nevertheless, Marcus reports that Feinstein’s own Democratic colleagues took umbrage with how she handled the matter. Durbin, according to the book, said he respected Feinstein’ motives but told her, “you cannot withhold this.” Feinstein’s fellow Californian on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Kamala Harris, also pressed her aggressively. “There are going to be repercussions from this,” Harris reportedly told her. “You’ve got to figure this out.”
The alarmed senators had their own suggestions: Durbin, for example, urged Feinstein to convene a meeting of Judiciary Democrats to be briefed about the letter—arguing it would likely not be contained much longer. That meeting did eventually happen, with Ford’s letter read aloud, her name redacted. Senators were shocked: one, speaking anonymously, told Marcus “I remember reading the letter two or three times and thinking, huh, okay, bad, bad, we need to hear from her.”
Another senator put it bluntly, “She shows us the letter and it just makes it worse.”
Later on, as more allegations of sexual assault were lodged against Kavanaugh, Democrats found additional reason to be concerned with Feinstein’s choices. Marcus reports that Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) implored Feinstein, with no success, to push the FBI to investigate an allegation from a fellow Yale classmate, Max Stier, who says he witnessed Kavanaugh drunkenly thrust his penis into the hand of a female student—one who said she didn’t remember the incident and never came forward. Additionally, Marcus reports that Feinstein didn’t push back against Grassley’s public assertions that the committee’s investigatory efforts were being rejected by another Kavanaugh accuser—Debbie Ramirez—despite the fact that Ramirez was requesting that she not be forced to turn over evidence to Grassley prior to speaking to a bipartisan group of committee members.
Marcus’ book acknowledges the difficulty of Feinstein’s situation, particularly with respect to Ford, and that it was far from clear exactly how she should have handled it. But Marcus suggests that Feinstein’s vow to protect Ford’s identity was at the heart of the problem.
“Was Feinstein correct to assure Ford anonymity? Without question, her instincts were admirable,” Marcus writes. “But assuring Ford of confidentiality under these circumstances was arguably heedless of reality.”
“It is hard not to wonder what would have happened had Feinstein been gently persistent with Ford, if she sketched out the risks, and emphasized to her the stakes for the country.”