WASHINGTON — A president always sympathetic to fellow accused sexual abusers. A Senate with a razor-thin Republican margin. Women voters already rejecting the party, with midterms only seven weeks away.
In a summer of stumbles for President Donald Trump’s party heading into the coming midterm elections, now add a suddenly troubled nomination to the Supreme Court.
What not long ago was believed would be a boost to Republicans has instead become the latest anchor threatening to sink the party, with neither the White House nor the GOP-led Senate sure of a safe path forward after the accusation by Christine Blasey Ford that high court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh once tried to rape her.
Monday evening, Republicans chose to let Ford, now a psychology professor in California, testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee and to bring back Kavanaugh to hear his side — a risky idea at best. Apart from the prospect of a dais packed with male Republican senators like Texas’ Ted Cruz grilling Ford (there are no female GOP senators on the committee) is the possibility that average Americans will find her believable.
“If she gets up there and is credible, it’s a real problem for them,” one Republican close to the White House said Monday on condition of anonymity. “And how he does is as determinative as how well she does.”
Perhaps to avoid that, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell previously endorsed a plan by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, of conducting bipartisan interviews with Ford and Kavanaugh — but not taking public testimony. Within hours, though, with several Republican senators speaking as if a public hearing were a given, one was scheduled for next Monday.
White House spokesman Raj Shah, who has been shepherding the nominee’s movement through the confirmation process, said Kavanaugh welcomed the opportunity to answer the accusation. “Judge Kavanaugh looks forward to a hearing where he can clear his name of this false allegation. He stands ready to testify tomorrow if the Senate is ready to hear him,” Shah said.
Trump, in a Monday afternoon photo opportunity, said he had not spoken to Kavanaugh recently but continued to support him. Asked if Kavanaugh had offered to withdraw his nomination, Trump answered, “What a ridiculous question.”
“If it takes a little delay, it’ll take a little delay,” he said, adding that he wants “a full process … and hear everybody out.”
Kavanaugh earlier Monday released a statement through the White House denying that the encounter as Ford described it ever took place.
“This is a completely false allegation. I have never done anything like what the accuser describes ― to her or to anyone,” he said. “Because this never happened, I had no idea who was making this accusation until she identified herself yesterday.”
That denial aligns with the approach Trump allies have taken when accused of sexual misconduct or spousal abuse in the past two years — from Roy Moore facing an accusation of child sex abuse as he ran for Senate in Alabama to then–Republican National Committee finance chairman Steve Wynn after he was accused of sexual harassment by female employees to former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, who failed to receive a full security clearance because of domestic abuse allegations.
In all those cases, Trump sided with the men, arguing that he believed their denials of the allegations.
That approach fits with Trump’s handling of the many credible sexual misconduct allegations against him over the years — an approach he reportedly explained in detail to a friend. “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women,” he said, according to journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” about the Trump White House. “You’ve got to push back hard. You’ve got to deny anything that’s said about you. Never admit.”
That tactic, if it ends with Republicans ramming Kavanaugh through despite Ford’s accusations, could wind up harming the party even further in the coming midterms.
Pollsters across the political spectrum are finding a yawning gender gap, with female voters favoring Democratic candidates by as much as 25 percentage points. While men are favoring Republicans by single digits, women make up a larger percentage of the electorate.
“There are enough Republican and independent women who may just pause and say, ‘This is too much,’” said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. “Remember, a decision not to vote by some GOP women can be as critical as voting for the Democratic candidates.”
Kavanaugh, a judge on the powerful Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, spent much of Monday huddled at the White House. As late as last week, his confirmation to retired Justice Anthony Kennedy’s seat seemed all but certain.
That began to come apart after reports that the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, California Sen. Diane Feinstein, was in possession of a letter from a woman alleging that Kavanaugh and a friend assaulted her decades earlier at a high school party. Previously not publicly identified, Ford put a name to the allegation and filled in details in an interview published Sunday in The Washington Post.
Kavanaugh’s new travails reopen the question of why he was added to Trump’s list of potential nominees in the first place.
Trump, who had never shown much interest in who was or was not on the Supreme Court, essentially guaranteed nominations acceptable to Christian conservatives if they supported his campaign in May 2016, when he produced a list of 11 names given to him by the conservative Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation. Four months later, Trump added 10 names to the list and then said in a statement, “This list is definitive and I will choose only from it in picking future justices of the United States Supreme Court.”
But Trump broke that promise last November. After choosing Neil Gorsuch from the pre-election list, Trump added five names to it, including Kavanaugh’s.
Kavanaugh, like Gorsuch, had clerked for Kennedy, and some speculation centered on the theory that Kennedy would retire only if he was guaranteed that Kavanaugh would replace him. Also, Kavanaugh in 2009 wrote a law review article stating that sitting presidents should not be prosecuted — and some speculated that he was chosen because of Trump’s legal danger from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
The White House on Monday did not respond to queries about why Kavanaugh and the four others were added to the list of possible nominees despite Trump’s promise.