Just after Sen. Jeff Flake announced last week that he was going to vote to move Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination out of committee, the Arizona Republican found himself cornered by two angry women. One virally told Flake that by voting for Kavanaugh, “you’re telling all women that they don’t matter,” and “that they should just stay quiet, because if they tell you what happened to them, you’re going to ignore them.”
Flake took this to heart. When he subsequently insisted that the FBI must examine Christine Blasey Ford’s charges that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, Flake offered this as a means “to bring this country together.” Flake argued that “this country is being ripped apart here, and we’ve got to make sure that we do due diligence” by taking Ford’s claims seriously. Only after that, Flake suggested, can the country “move on.”
In other words, Flake — who was joined in this by Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — stood for the proposition that a precondition for healing the country’s divisions over the Kavanaugh affair is to treat Ford’s claims with a seriousness of purpose commensurate with the gravity that millions of people across the country assign to the issue of sexual violence, many of those people themselves being survivors of it.
When President Trump attacked Ford at a rally on Tuesday night, he did more than merely showcase his typically depraved and hateful nature. What Trump really did was inform the country in no uncertain terms that he will do all he can to ensure that the country does not — and cannot — heal its searing divisions over the Kavanaugh matter, after it is resolved.
Trump ridiculed the gaps in Ford’s memory: “How did you get home? I don’t remember. How did you get there? I don’t remember. Where is the place? I don’t remember.” Trump contrasted this mockery with an outpouring of sympathy, if he is capable of such a feeling, for Kavanaugh: “A man’s life is in tatters,” he said, adding: “Think of your husbands. Think of your sons.”
In this, Trump broke from the carefully crafted GOP strategy of refraining from questioning that the attack happened while suggesting it might have been carried out by someone else. Instead, Trump ridiculed the claim itself and insisted that the only true victim in this situation is Kavanaugh.
What Trump is really signaling here is that, if Kavanaugh is confirmed, he will continue to rub the faces of millions of women in excrement over it. Trump was doing precisely what that woman accused Flake of doing — telling women that their sexual assault claims “don’t matter” — and he was undertaking this provocation deliberately, using the bully pulpit of the presidency to do so.
Shock and horror at Trump
The three GOP senators who will decide Kavanaugh’s fate all expressed shock and horror at Trump’s remarks. Flake said they are “appalling.” Collins claimed they were “wrong.” Murkowski said they were “unacceptable.” However, Flake was quick to add that Trump’s comments won’t impact his decision on Kavanaugh, because “you can’t blame other people for what the president says.”
That is a reasonable argument as far as it goes, but it defines the current situation too narrowly. For you cannot easily disentangle Trump’s vocal attack on Ford, and especially his telegraphed intention to rub an eventual Kavanaugh confirmation in the faces of millions of Americans, from the very process by which her claims have been evaluated. And this process, by Flake’s own lights (and seemingly those of Collins and Murkowski as well), must do the job of repairing the country’s divisions over this matter to the best extent possible.
But here’s the reality: Bloomberg is now reporting that the White House has restricted the FBI from interviewing either Kavanaugh or Ford. This comes after the White House and Republicans did everything possible to prevent a full examination of Ford’s claims before the public, from initially resisting Ford’s public testimony, to ruling out additional witnesses, to refusing a reopened FBI inquiry, to trying to dramatically restrict that inquiry, and, now, restricting it to a lesser degree.
That’s not all: The political strategy for saving Kavanaugh also rests on roughly the argument Trump made at his rally. The White House today defended Trump’s attack, claiming he was just stating “facts” about Ford’s faulty memory. NBC’s Mark Murray demonstrates that in reality Trump was dissembling — Ford does claim to remember some of the things Trump says she forgot. The point is, distorting Ford’s claimed recollection wasn’t just Trump being unhinged. It’s the actual closing argument the White House is making to exonerate Kavanaugh.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a leading proponent of the Kavanaugh-as-chief-victim narrative, also defended Trump’s diatribe with a similar distortion, claiming that Trump offered a “factual rendition.” And Trump’s basic rally claim — that the real victims here are all the men who now face #MeToo persecution — overlaps heavily with the argument that Kavanaugh’s defenders are making in paid media, which is that Kavanaugh must be confirmed to avoid legitimizing his personal destruction, which would be a profoundly unjust outcome.
The cancer at the center of this process
All of which is to say that this entire process has been heavily shaped by the very same sentiments Trump expressed at the rally. When he attacked Ford, his supporters cheered lustily. Trump is feeding his supporters’ grievances and prejudices with material fashioned, in a sense, out of genuine pain and anguish extracted from millions of others who see Ford as an icon of enormous cultural and political importance. This is not simply an inevitable byproduct of a polarizing debate. It is deliberate: Trump believes he profits politically off this division. The procedural treatment of Ford throughout cannot be neatly severed from this impulse.
It is true that Trump’s attack may not, by itself, be sufficient reason to oppose Kavanaugh. But Flake, Collins and Murkowski have plenty of other reasons to do so — see Benjamin Wittes’s case that Kavanaugh’s lack of candor and his partisan anger render him nonviable, something Flake himself has expressed concerns about.
In demanding the FBI inquiry, Flake held out the prospect of voting “no” — if the process did not attempt to heal the nation’s divisions, and instead treated Ford’s claims in a cavalier manner that would infuriate a huge swath of the country. But this process has, in fact, been hopelessly tainted throughout, in exactly this way. Trump and his treatment of Ford — and the larger impulses animating it — are the cancer deeply lodged at center of this reality.
Big, career-defining votes occur in a complicated context, involving all kinds of considerations of how they will impact the country. Trump has made it inescapable that confirming Kavanaugh means “ripping the country apart,” as Flake put it. Trump has now confirmed to the nation that he will do all he can to make this so, deliberately. This is now an unavoidable consequence of voting for Kavanaugh, one that Trump created, and no one who wants to avoid that outcome in good faith can pretend otherwise.