Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on September 27, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Andrew Harnik – Pool/Getty Images
Going into today’s historic Senate hearing, Donald Trump sent signals that he was willing to abandon embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh if his confirmation appeared beyond salvaging. While publicly maintaining support for Kavanaugh—he called the sexual assault allegations a Democratic “con game”—Trump had privately been complaining to aides for days that Kavanaugh was a “Bush guy” who’d been foisted on him by White House counsel Don McGahn and Federalist Society Executive Vice President Leonard Leo. Kavanaugh’s Fox News interview, in which he stiffly and not terribly believably presented himself as a choirboy who remained a virgin well after high school while repeating the same lines, also rankled Trump. Speaking to reporters yesterday during a freewheeling news conference, Trump left the door open to dumping Kavanaugh. “I could be persuaded” by Ford, he said.
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s halting, harrowing turn before the committee was seen as highly credible, even by some Republican senators, and for a while, the bottom seemed to be falling out from Kavanaugh’s nomination. According to two sources, Trump was freely grumbling at the unfolding political disaster Republicans had created as he watched Ford’s testimony aboard Air Force One. “He was so upset,” one Republican briefed on his thinking said. Trump had multiple targets. He blamed McGahn and Mitch McConnell for not forcing a Judiciary Committee vote on Monday, sources said. He also criticized the performance of Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, who’d been enlisted by the all-male Republican committee members to question Ford. But it was Ford herself that most troubled Trump. According to two sources, he found her believable, and vented that Republicans had exposed themselves by not evaluating her talents as a witness well before the hearing.
Kavanaugh needed to convince Trump he was going to fight to save his nomination, and he had his game face on. His outraged, weepy opening statement was delivered in unrelenting emotional overdrive, in which he echoed and amplified Trump’s con-game charges against the Democrats. In the questioning that followed, he sparred angrily with Democrats while ducking many of their questions. It was a shockingly partisan performance for a potential justice, raising questions about how he could be an evenhanded jurist. But the raw political defiance impressed Trump, sources said. “This was why he nominated him from the beginning,” Kellyanne Conway told me during a break late in Kavanaugh’s testimony. “He stepped up and delivered a tour de force opening statement.”
Conway confirmed Trump was unhappy that Republicans hadn’t forced through a committee vote earlier this week, but disputed that Trump was worried by Ford’s testimony. “He wasn’t throwing things at the TV,” she said. “He’s heard both of them and he hasn’t changed his mind.” Kavanaugh’s performance, she said, would make it hard for red-state Democrats like Joe Manchin to vote against him.
As Kavanaugh’s hearing ended, Trump asserted his pleasure with the performance. “Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him,” he tweeted. “His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting. Democrats’ search and destroy strategy is disgraceful and this process has been a total sham and effort to delay, obstruct, and resist. The Senate must vote!”