Inside the White House on Sunday afternoon, the team of Brett M. Kavanaugh had been scrambling to shut down the latest disaster in what once seemed a certain nomination: a coming New Yorker story outlining a new accusation of harassment against Kavanaugh.
The Drudge Report had already teased the piece — “Another Woman?” — atop the site just an hour before publication. This, following a Washington Post story a week prior in which Christine Blasey Ford alleged that Kavanaugh had pinned her to a bed during a high school party and attempted to assault her. Kavanaugh denied the allegations.
That night, the White House team huddled to figure out what to do next. They consulted with Kavanaugh about whether he would agree to the unprecedented move, and yet one that fit the media-driven moment of the era of President Trump: an on-camera interview to broadcast his version of the story, in his own words. He had already discussed the possibility with his wife, Ashley, and they both quickly agreed. He didn’t need much persuading, according to a person who spoke with him at the time.
It was a pretty easy decision, according to one person with knowledge of the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about internal deliberations. Their goal was for Kavanaugh to get his story out in his own words.
The White House discussed several options that night and the following morning. For the interview they considered broadcast outlets as well as the Trump administration’s standby: Fox News.
It didn’t take long to hit on the right interviewer: Martha MacCallum. The 54-year-old mother of three and host of a popular early-evening show on Fox News, “The Story With Martha MacCallum,” represented exactly the demographic the White House feels it is trying to convince of Kavanaugh’s fitness to serve on the Supreme Court. MacCallum had developed a reputation on the news side of Fox News as a measured interviewer.
She had put in a request to interview Kavanaugh in the summer and was chosen because White House officials considered her credible as someone who could ask about coming of age in the 1980s. Part of the calculus in selecting Fox News for the interview was an effort to speak directly to their conservative viewers, this person said.
MacCallum told Variety that she learned at 9 a.m. the day of the interview that her request to speak to Kavanaugh had been granted.
A White House communications staffer spoke with MacCallum’s staff shortly before the interview. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Bill Shine, White House deputy chief of staff in charge of communications, were also informed of the interview plan. Shine briefed the president, who asked to speak to Kavanaugh to voice his support directly for him before the interview taping on Monday afternoon.
That afternoon, Kavanaugh sat next to his wife, lips pursed, brows furrowed. “I am looking for a fair process,” he said.
MacCallum’s interview started almost right off the bat by asking Ashley Kavanaugh what the past weeks had been like for her. She had received death threats, MacCallum noted. “How does that feel?”
Ashley Kavanaugh replied that the process had been “incredibly difficult. It’s harder than we imagined, and we imagined it might be hard. But at the end of the day, our faith is strong and we know that we’re on the right path.”
MacCallum asked Kavanaugh about allegations from Michael Avenatti, the attorney and Trump critic, that Kavanaugh and Mark Judge targeted women with alcohol and drugs to allow men to subsequently gang-rape them. (On Wednesday, Avenatti revealed that he is representing Julie Swetnick, who said Kavanaugh was physically abusive toward girls in high school and present at a house party in 1982 at which she says she was the victim of a gang rape.)
Kavanaugh’s response to MacCallum — which he had prepped in advance with White House officials including Shine and lawyer Donald McGahn — was to point out that he went to an all-boys Catholic high school where he focused on academics, athletics, going to church and service projects.
“I did not have sexual intercourse or anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter,” he told MacCallum.
In the Variety interview, MacCallum said Kavanaugh’s feelings were “very palpable.” “It was very clear to me that underneath it all, he was choking up,” MacCallum said.
Kavanaugh’s defenders point to his admission in the interview that he drank and did things in high school that might cause him to “cringe a bit, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about an allegation of sexual assault. I’ve never sexually assaulted anyone.”
Kavanaugh’s defense of his character was forceful and also controversial, as was the choice of MacCallum and Fox News for the interview.
Before the show aired, MacCallum was attacked on Twitter for her defense years ago of former Fox News chief Roger Ailes. Soledad O’Brien, a former CNN and NBC anchor, noted that in July 2016, after Gretchen Carlson sued Roger Ailes for sexual harassment and retaliation, MacCallum said: “Roger is such a terrific boss. I don’t like to see anything that reflects negatively on him.”
In response to O’Brien, MacCallum pointed out that other prominent women who worked with other television figures such as Matt Lauer, Tom Brokaw, Charlie Rose and Leslie Moonves “have spoken up initially to support them because they were surprised at the allegations.”
MacCallum was hardly the most high-profile Fox personality to stand up for Ailes.
Bill Shine, then Ailes’s second-in-command, was a key figure in rallying women to speak out for “Team Roger,” a term Shine coined. According to former Fox contributor Julie Roginsky’s lawsuit against Ailes, Fox News and Shine — which has since been settled — she alleged that Shine dismissed her concerns about Ailes’s harassment and retaliation.
Shine’s part in the effort to rally support for Ailes ended up backfiring, as some women at Fox felt pressured to voice support for Ailes and ended up speaking to the law firm investigaing him . Shine was pushed out of Fox News in May 2017.
By one measure, media strategy countering the allegations against Kavanaugh was a win for both Fox and Kavanaugh: MacCallum’s interview with him was her highest-rated episode to date, grabbing an average 610,000 viewers in the news demographic of adults 25 to 54 years old.
And MacCallum won praise from unlikely corners. “Martha MacCallum is pressing Kavanaugh more than I would have guessed,” said Brian Fallon, a former Hillary Clinton campaign official, on Twitter.
Inside the White House, the MacCallum interview was also seen by Trump as a success, according to two people who spoke with him about it. And the team prepping Kavanaugh felt that the broad goal — to get the judge on camera, using words that could be quoted the following day — was achieved.
Never mind that Kavanaugh’s representation of his college experience was so chaste that it spurred some of his former classmates to speak to The Washington Post about how he regularly drank to excess. “Brett was a sloppy drunk,” one of his former college classmates told The Post.
“Kavanaugh’s Fox News interview now looks like it was perhaps the worst move he could have made,” Garance Franke-Ruta, the Washington editor of Yahoo News tweeted Wednesday.