By Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.
For the better part of a remarkable week in Washington, Donald Trump seemed uncharacteristically removed from the action, floating above it all, almost Reaganesque. Brett Kavanaugh, Trump complained offstage, was a Bush guy. His bid to save his nomination on Fox, where he portrayed himself as something of a choirboy, the president viewed as limp. He liked Kavanaugh’s pugilism at last Friday’s hearing, but he was taken aback by all the talk of beer. “I watched that hearing, and I watched a man saying that he did have difficulty as a young man with drink,” Trump told reporters. A few hours later, he was back to praising Christine Blasey Ford and taking a wait-and-see approach—he wasn’t about to expend political capital saving Kavanaugh’s apparently sinking nomination. And, he couldn’t help mentioning, he himself had never had even one beer, being a teetotaler.
Trump’s mocking of Dr. Ford from the rally stage in Mississippi on Tuesday night seemed a characteristically undisciplined outburst, a reversion to form, and it drew rebukes from key Republican senators who would decide Kavanaugh’s fate. But it was probably a result of an evolving calculation of the political forces that, more than the nomination, would shape the midterms. Advisers including Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Shine and outside allies Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie had been imploring Trump to get more aggressive on behalf of his Supreme Court nominee, sources said. “Defending Kavanaugh is a culture-war issue for Republicans that divides and splits the Democrats,” one Republican close to the White House said. “The problem has always been: how do we turn out the G.O.P. base?”
Kavanaugh, the West Wing realized, was a wedge issue, tailor-made for the struggle at hand, and by the end of the week, after a hamstrung F.B.I. investigation gave Republicans enough cover, Trump went all in. At a rally in Minnesota on Thursday night, Trump told supporters, “Democrats have been trying to destroy Judge Brett Kavanaugh since the very first second he was announced.”
According to sources, Trump advisers feel they’ve found a winning message that will help them hold the Senate and, in what might be magical thinking, keep the House. “It’s a political issue, and he’s going to take it to the next level. That’s how you get the G.O.P. base, which is 60-plus percent white male, to vote,” the Republican close to the White House said. Trump hinted at this strategy on Thursday night. “All you have to do is look at the polls over the last three or four days, and it shows that their rage-fueled resistance is starting to backfire at a level that nobody has ever seen before,” he told rally goers.
Advisers say Trump’s mood has improved significantly this week, which in raw political terms, has been one of the best of his presidency. He scored big wins with a new Canada-Mexico trade deal and 3.7 percent unemployment numbers. “His optimism is very high,” one former West Wing official said. “I’m seeing it in the polling—there’s electricity in the air for Republicans,” said another former West Wing official. (One minor annoyance: Kavanaugh’s Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Trump thought it was too apologetic,” said one outside adviser to the White House.)
But as good as this week was for Trump, investing his political future in a deeply unpopular judge who’s been credibly accused of sexual assault is a sign of the relativity of expectations in Trumpworld. “Folks are just focused on surviving,” one prominent Republican said.