President Donald Trump, a teetotaler who says he’s never even had a beer, finds himself in the awkward position of fiercely defending a Supreme Court nominee under harsh scrutiny for his past heavy drinking.
The more Trump embraces his embattled nominee and publicly comments on accounts that Brett Kavanaugh drank to excess, the starker the contrast becomes — shedding light on what Trump on Monday called “one of my only good traits.”
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Speaking to reporters at the White House on Tuesday, Trump denied that he was bothered by reports of Kavanaugh’s past drinking habits, which several former classmates have described as excessive.
“I remember my college days; everybody was drinking. It was, like, normal,” Trump said. “I was abnormal. … So I don’t see anything wrong.”
In booze-soaked Washington, where senators, lobbyists and White House staffers regularly drink stiff cocktails in wood-paneled downtown bars, Trump’s abstinence is a rarity — and a quality his aides are acutely aware of.
Current and former aides said they’ve never had the impression that Trump disapproves of their social drinking after work hours. Even so, some are mindful of his well-known dislike of alcohol.
Two former administration officials said lower-level campaign and White House aides were less likely to drink around the president or talk about drinking in his presence — not because Trump would berate them for it, but because, in the words of one of the former officials, they worried he could form “a lesser view of them.”
Several people close to Trump pointed to one incident in particular in which an administration official’s drinking did get under the president’s skin. Trump privately expressed annoyance when photos emerged last year of then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price drinking at a Capitol Hill bar as administration officials were trying to wrangle votes to overturn Obamacare.
While the president was mostly angry because he believed Price was shirking his duties, one former White House official said Trump’s “frustration was amped up 10 percent by the fact that he was at a bar.”
Trump has also suffered political headaches from other instances of alleged alcohol use. Last year, Marc Kasowitz, his first personal lawyer in the Russia investigation, stepped down soon after ProPublica reported he had recently struggled with alcohol abuse. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough also claimed on-air earlier this year that Trump had expressed qualms about the drinking of his current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, before he hired the former New York mayor.
Trump’s aversion to drinking was instilled by his father and the struggle of his older brother, Fred, whose alcoholism contributed to his death at 43. That tragedy seared in Donald a belief that the vice could prevent him from climbing the ranks of the family’s business empire.
In public comments about his brother last year, Trump said “he had a problem with alcohol. And he would tell me, ‘Don’t drink.’” He later added: “And to this day I have never had a drink and I have no longing for it. I have no interest in it.”
While Trump has publicly spoken about his aversion to drinking — and says he doesn’t even like the taste of alcohol — people who have worked closely with him say he doesn’t dwell on the subject.
“It’s part of his persona,” said former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res. “But he never really talked about it.”
By his own account, it was a different story in his own household: “From the time my kids could practically speak I would say that: ‘No drugs, no alcohol, no smoking,'” Trump told Forbes in 2010.
“I have a lot of wealthy friends who have kids with great potential whose potential was destroyed because of alcohol and drugs. They got into the drug culture, the alcohol culture and it destroyed their mind for the long term,” he said.
The message didn’t entirely stick: In a 2004 interview with New York magazine, his son Don Jr. said that he “used to drink a lot and party pretty hard.” But he added that “about two years ago, I quit drinking entirely.” And in a 2015 interview with Don Imus, Trump said of his children, “I think they don’t drink.”
The roots of that thinking run deep, to the tragic life and early death of Trump’s brother Fred, who last year he called a “great guy, best looking guy, best personality, much better than mine.”
“He saw how alcohol affected his brother, but even more he saw dad’s disapproval,” said Trump biographer Gwenda Blair, who wrote a book about the Trump family. “Donald wanted to take over the family business, and it wasn’t hard to figure out that you shouldn’t do what dad didn’t like.”
Trump sometimes showed flashes of frustration with Fred’s drinking and cavalier attitude. He scolded his older brother during a dinner with friends in the 1960s, encouraging him to buckle down and focus on work, according to The New York Times.
“He is bothered by anyone who shows weakness, so a person who is drunk, he would have been incredibly dismissive of and put off by,” said Tony Schwartz, who co-authored Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.”
But for Trump, there’s a big difference between a social drinker and a problem drinker, according to Schwartz. “A problem drinker is a person who is sloppy and out of control — and out of control is the worst thing you can be in Trump’s mind,” he said.
There are clear signs that Trump is willing to tolerate drinking in his presence, including his regular famous appearances at New York nightclubs like Studio 54 in the 1980s and 1990s. Trump has also owned numerous hotels and casinos at which alcohol flowed freely to patrons — and he bought a winery in Virginia in 2011 that’s now run by his son Eric. In the mid-2000s he even lent his name to a short-lived brand of vodka. (“It’s a great-tasting vodka,” Trump declared at a launch party for the golden-bottled liquor, before noting that he was “very proud of the fact that I don’t drink.”)
Trump’s family has long profited from the sale of alcohol. His paternal ancestors were vintners in Germany, and his grandfather, Frederick Trump, operated restaurants and other establishments that served alcohol to weary gold miners in the Northwest, an endeavor that helped build the nest egg that would eventually make Trump a household name, according to Blair, the Trump biographer.
Trump’s drink of choice is Diet Coke. Another former White House official recalled rarely ever seeing him consume anything but Diet Coke and — very occasionally — water. “He doesn’t drink anything else,” the former official said.
White House advance staffers make sure that Trump has plenty of Diet Coke on hand when he gives public toasts at events. But in an apparent slip-up, Trump toasted heads of state at the United Nations last year with what appeared to be wine. “Did teetotal Donald Trump drink wine at the UN?” a Telegraph headline asked. This year though, Trump toasted with Diet Coke.
(Confusingly, Trump seemed to dismiss the value of Diet Coke in a 2012 tweet in which he complained: “Let’s face it–this stuff just doesn’t work. It makes you hungry.”)
Kavanaugh’s high school and college drinking have became a central focal point in the partisan fight over his nomination, with some of his friends and acquaintances pushing back on the judge’s insistence that he never drank so much that he had lapses in his memory.
Democrats say that question is highly relevant as they assess whether he might have been capable of the high school and college-era sexual misconduct alleged by several women, including Christine Blasey Ford, who says Kavanaugh assaulted her at a party when they were teenagers.
During his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Kavanaugh said he likes beer, but “did not drink beer to the point of blacking out, and I never sexually assaulted anyone.”
But even Trump expressed surprise at his drinking, and he initially appeared to suggest that the judge had a problem with alcohol in his youth.
“I was surprised at how vocal he was about the fact that he likes beer,” Trump told reporters on Monday. “And he’s had a little bit of difficulty. I mean, he talked about things that happened when he drank. I mean, this is not a man that said that alcohol was — that he was perfect with respect to alcohol.”
Trump appeared to soften his rhetoric in his Tuesday comments, depicting Kavanaugh’s behavior as par for the course.
“Everybody was drinking [in college], and they used to drink a lot of beer and there was nothing wrong,” Trump said. “I just didn’t choose to do that, but almost everybody else did so. I don’t see anything wrong.”
A White House official cautioned against parsing Trump’s language, noting that the president has said Kavanaugh’s youthful drinking shouldn’t keep him from serving on the Supreme Court.
The official downplayed Trump’s use of the word “difficulty” to describe Kavanaugh’s high school drinking, adding, “He’s just saying that the judge partied in high school and went on to do big things.”
As for himself, Trump suggests that booze would be his own undoing.
“I’ve never had alcohol,” he told reporters at the White House on Monday. “Can you imagine if I had, what a mess I’d be?”
“I’d be the world’s worst,” he added. “But I never drank. I never drank. OK?”