Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday constructed a box fort in their august, high-ceilinged committee room, with 167 boxes labeled “KAVANAUGH FILES” stacked together. Each box, they said, could contain about 6,000 pieces of paper, but they were all empty—as North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis clarified, the real Kavanaugh files will be released digitally by the National Archives. The purpose of this arrangement was to shoot down Democratic talking points in an escalating battle over how many records from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s two White House stints should be made available prior to his confirmation hearings.
“I think it’s more than enough for the Democrats to make a rational decision about supporting Judge Kavanaugh,” Tillis said. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, winging it in the final months of his 41-year Senate career, was more colorful in his description of Democrats’ request for maximal document review.
“We can’t keep going down this partisan, picky, stupid, dumbass role that has happened around here for so long,” Hatch said.
The documents that Sen. Chuck Grassley, in his authority as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has requested from the National Archives would come out to about 900,000 pages—most of those emails to and from Kavanaugh—but those only cover about two of his five-and-a-half years in the Bush White House. Grassley, against Democratic objections, sought only the records from Kavanaugh’s 2001–03 stint in the White House counsel’s office, and not those from his 2003–06 tenure as staff secretary. Were the staff secretary records included, it could reach several million pages. Grassley, conveniently, determined that those weren’t relevant to Kavanaugh’s appointment.
Not long after Republicans built their box fort, the National Archives delivered some unfortunate news. Uncovering and vetting 900,000 pages of records, it turns out, is an arduous process, and it certainly can’t all be done by Grassley’s preferred deadline of Aug. 15. Instead, roughly 300,000 of those pages—the textual records, as well as those emails “from” Kavanaugh—will be ready by Aug. 20. The other 600,000 pages, though, won’t be ready until “the end of October.” Republicans had hoped to have Kavanaugh confirmed by the beginning of October.
And they still do. The National Archives’ disclosure that it will take forever to release these documents has changed the talking point from “Democrats will have 900,000 pages of records to review, which is more than enough” to, simply, “Democrats will have enough.”
“I think they will have a good sense of what is out there on Kavanaugh,” a source close to the GOP leadership told Politico on Thursday. “There’s no chance in hell Mitch McConnell holds this vote after the election.” The latter sentence is the important part here, and whatever argument is necessary will be marshaled in its support.
Republicans are also pointing to a simultaneous review process that’s underway and moving more expeditiously than that of the National Archives. Out of the goodness of his heart, former President George W. Bush has authorized his own team, led by lawyer Bill Burck, to do its own review.
“The committee will receive documents in an even more rapid fashion from the Bush Library as the Archives continues its statutory document review,” Judiciary spokesman Taylor Foy said in a statement to the Washington Post on Thursday, after the National Archives news. “As a result, I expect the committee will be able to undertake its thorough review process along the same timeline set in previous Supreme Court confirmations.” Burck, in a submission to Grassley on Thursday, sent the first 125,035 pages worth of material for the committee to review. The committee will need the National Archives’ blessing before it can make the documents public.
You may be asking why Senate Democrats, in lieu of the National Archives process, should be asked to put their faith in a cache of documents screened by George W. Bush’s lawyer instead. This is a question that Senate Democrats have been asking too.
“Today, the National Archives confirmed our worst fear—that the vast majority of even the small portion of records the American public will see from Brett Kavanaugh’s time in the Bush White House will be prescreened by a political operative and attorney for George W. Bush, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Donald McGahn,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday. “This unprecedented process appears to be designed intentionally by Republicans to deny the Senate and the American people the information they need to evaluate this critically important nomination.”
One can see why Republicans roll their eyes at this. Whether Grassley requests zero pages of Kavanaugh records or 5 million, Republicans will get the same number of Democratic votes: somewhere between zero and six, depending on whether Republicans can keep the 50 active members of their conference—John McCain is out indefinitely—together.
But Republicans also understand that Democrats are playing the political hand that President Trump dealt them when he selected Kavanaugh. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as the New York Times reported in early July, had warned the administration that Kavanaugh’s lengthy paper trail “would pose difficulties for his confirmation.” We’ll see in the coming weeks if it poses true difficulties or if this will be remembered as a footnote about the partisan logistical bickering that preceded Kavanaugh’s comfortable confirmation.