President Donald Trump’s first instinct after learning the identity of the woman who claims Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her in high school was to fight back, displaying what one Republican close to the White House described as a “bring it on” attitude.
Instead, the president followed the advice of top White House attorney Don McGahn and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and stayed out of the rapidly escalating #MeToo scandal, which has thrown Trump’s second Supreme Court nomination into turmoil just weeks before Republicans had hoped to have Kavanaugh seated on the bench – and in the crucial run-up to the midterm elections.
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Trump now faces a politically difficult choice when it comes to Kavanaugh: Stick with a nominee whose confirmation would stir up old questions about Trump’s own behavior toward women, or risk not being able to fulfill the central goal of seating a fifth reliably conservative justice on the court before the end of the year.
But the president has a history of staying loyal to people he likes in the face of crisis – from failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore to former White House physician Ronny Jackson – and there’s been no sign of him backing down even if he’s taking a more measured, muted approach to Kavanaugh, according to more than half a dozen people familiar with the confirmation process, including current and former senior administration officials.
The president finally engaged with the issue late Monday afternoon, telling reporters at a workforce development event in the White House’s Roosevelt Room that Kavanaugh was “somebody very special” who “never even had a blemish on his record.”
Trump expressed openness to holding hearings to air the allegations, saying he’d like to see “a complete process.”
“If it takes a little delay, it’ll take a little delay,” he added. “I’m sure it will work out very well.”
When asked whether Kavanaugh had offered to withdraw from the confirmation process, the president snapped back that it was a “ridiculous question.”
Kavanaugh himself has only doubled down on a strenuous denial of claims Christine Blasey Ford, now a professor living in California, first made anonymously in a letter to Congress and then by name in a Washington Post interview published on Sunday. Ford described in graphic detail being groped decades ago at a high-school party in suburban Washington D.C. by Kavanaugh, who held her down, tried to pull off her clothes, and covered her mouth when she tried to scream.
A public hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled for Sept. 24 after Ford, through her attorney, said early Monday she was willing to testify before Congress, as did Kavanaugh, who continued to call the allegations completely false.
“Judge Kavanaugh looks forward to a hearing where he can clear his name of this false allegation,” said White House spokesman Raj Shah.
Kavanaugh spent the day at the White House complex in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the team that helped the judge prepare for his confirmation hearings – former law clerks and staffers from the White House counsel’s office, Office of Legislative Affairs and communications shop – was busy reconstructing their so-called war room in case he faces another round of public testimony on the Ford accusations.
He also has retained Washington attorney Beth Wilkinson to represent him, said one person familiar with Kavanaugh’s plans. Wilkinson did not return a call to her office for comment.
The White House is working to appear open to letting Ford air her claims, with staff and Republicans close to the administration leery of inviting criticism or further firing up female voters before the midterms by attacking the accuser’s credibility, something the president did last year after women stepped forward before Alabama’s special Senate election to accuse Moore of assaulting them decades ago as a local prosecutor in Alabama.
Instead, the White House sent presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway out on television Monday morning to say of Ford: “She should not be ignored or insulted. She should be heard.” That statement set the tone for the rest of the day, with the president following Conway’s lead.
But as a Plan B, officials involved in the confirmation process – and Trump himself – are raising questions about Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s actions after receiving Ford’s original, anonymous letter, which she held on to for weeks before notifying fellow senators on the Judiciary Committee and referring the matter to the FBI.
Allies of Trump and Kavanaugh outside the White House are engaging in a rougher game. Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham and others circulated a story on Monday that Kavanaugh’s mother, also a judge, had presided over the 1996 foreclosure of a home owned by Ford’s parents – suggesting revenge as a motive for her accusations.
In fact, a different judge wrote an order forcing the sale of the couple’s house in August 1996. A few months later, Martha Kavanaugh, then a circuit court judge in Montgomery County, Md., dismissed the case and barred the lender from revisiting the case – allowing the couple to keep their home.
Ford’s lawyer, Debra Katz, did not respond to requests for comment.
At stake in Kavanaugh’s confirmation is a key swing vote on the Supreme Court that could ultimately decide the fate of abortion rights, environmental regulations, Obamacare, labor laws, gun rights, freedom of speech and the role of religion in society.
The Trump White House and Senate leadership very much wanted to complete the confirmation process by October, seating Kavanaugh ahead of the midterms as a selling point to Republican voters.
The White House has no intention of withdrawing Kavanaugh’s nomination and continues to prep for a committee vote on his nomination, originally slated for this Thursday, according to six officials familiar with the confirmation process and Republicans close to the White House. That would change only if new evidence is uncovered, or if other witnesses emerge to corroborate Ford’s account, these people said.
If that happens, these people said, Trump’s calculus might quickly change – despite the millions of dollars that have already been spent to support Kavanaugh’s nomination, not to mention the political capital of several powerful conservative groups including the Judicial Crisis Network and the Federalist Society. The Judicial Crisis Network also announced on Monday that it planned to spend $1.5 million on a new TV ad campaign to bolster Kavanaugh’s prospects.
Two women whom Kavanaugh dated in high school and college also came forward with statements to speak highly of his character.
For now, the White House is hoping that Kavanaugh can “squeak” through the confirmation process, as another Republican close to the White House put it – and it is largely putting that onus on the Senate to give the administration some distance from its success or failure.
“Can allegations that can never be proven true or false with an incident over 36 years ago destroy a man’s otherwise unblemished personal record? Everyone will have to see how it unfolds,” said a Republican familiar with the confirmation process.
Lorraine Woellert contributed to this report.