Republicans on Thursday drew a firm line against requests for records from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's time as White House staff secretary, as Democrats contended that the GOP is privately engaging in an underhanded process to further limit documents the Senate Judiciary Committee would ultimately see.
The heightened tensions over President Donald Trump's nominee came as the first batch of documents were turned over to the committee from George W. Bush's team Thursday, totaling more than 125,000 pages during Kavanaugh's time serving in Bush's White House counsel's office from 2001-2003.
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But Republicans have refused to request records from Kavanaugh's time serving in the Bush White House as staff secretary from 2003-2006, saying such documents are irrelevant to his nomination process.
Yet in a potential complication for Republican hopes to hold confirmation hearings next month, the National Archives warned Thursday that it would not be able to fulfill the GOP's request for documents until October.
"I think it's more than enough for the Democrats to make a rational decision about supporting Judge Kavanaugh," Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, said while standing before a stack of dozens of cardboard boxes to showcase what the GOP says is an unprecedented disclosure of records by a Supreme Court nominee. "Here's the reality. The same people who are asking for the documents oppose Judge Kavanaugh."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has appealed directly to Bush to access more documents. In response, Bush representative William Burck wrote a letter to Schumer this week saying that the former president has requested a "thorough review" of documents, with representatives from three major law firms vetting the records before they're turned over to Congress.
"To help expedite the Committee's access to records, President Bush has expressed his willingness to make available directly to the Committee copies of records that the team of lawyers has reviewed and that he has approved for disclosure," Burck said in the letter to Schumer. "To be clear, President Bush has offered this as a courtesy to the Committee to assist in a timely assessment of Judge Kavanaugh's nomination."
Democrats said the letter is an admission that the GOP is engaging in an unusual process to pre-screen documents sent to Capitol Hill, ensuring that even records from his time at the White House Counsel's office will not be publicly disclosed.
"This letter confirms what we've been saying: That a group of private-sector lawyers led by a former Bush White House official who still represents President Bush will be pre-screening the vast majority of Kavanaugh's records that Congress and the American people see," Schumer told CNN. "That's because Senate Republicans plan to rely on the documents provided by the Bush legal team and not wait for the National Archives to complete its review process. We don't know what they've held back, or why."
There are two separate reviews of documents happening simultaneously: One by the Bush team and another by the National Archives. A source involved in the review process told CNN that the law requires the former president to be consulted about which records can be disclosed -- and said the Bush team is working with law firms to turn over the documents simply so the Senate can get them expeditiously.
The National Archives told the committee that while it can't complete its review of approximately 900,000 pages of documents related to Kavanaugh until late October, it can review some 300,000 pages of "textual records" from 49,000 emails from Kavanaugh while he served in the White House Counsel Office by August 20. Republicans downplayed the National Archives' announcement, in part because of the separate ongoing Bush review, with a spokesman for Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley signaling the committee still plans to hold confirmation hearings in September.
According to the National Archives, there are roughly 560,000 pages of paper records related to Kavanaugh's time as staff secretary and another 475,000 emails either sent or received where Kavanaugh was copied. That is far more than than the 60,000 pages the Archives identified from the White House counsel's office, and the 170,000 emails he either received or sent or was copied on.
Republicans contend that a staff secretary job is more administrative, rather than substantive, and Democrats are simply engaging in a delay tactic to demand documents related to his time as staff secretary.
"We all understand what's going on here," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, told CNN. "There never really is going to be enough documents to satisfy them so I think he had to just make a call on what would be a fair line to draw and that's what he did."
But during his 2006 confirmation hearings to serve on a federal appeals court, Kavanaugh acknowledged playing a role in presidential statements that Bush employed with frequency to accompany legislation he signed into law. In particular, Kavanaugh acknowledged playing a role in a 2005 statement Bush signed accompanying a law sponsored by Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, to prohibit harsh interrogation tactics. The signing statement suggested that Bush could circumvent the law.
Asked at a news conference Thursday why the GOP wasn't interested in those records to understand Kavanaugh's role in the contentious 2005 interrogation debate, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said such requests were aimed at "delaying the confirmation of Kavanaugh."
Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee argued that Kavanaugh's views were just "talking points" and "not the development of policy." Tillis added this when asked about the signing statements on interrogation: "I want to learn about what he has done in the 307 opinions and his writings about his jurisprudence and whether or not he's qualified to be in the role of the Supreme Court."
This story has been updated to include additional developments.
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