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The storm brewing in Trump’s muted response to Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser

President Trump defended Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh on Sept. 17, after a woman accused him of assaulting her when they were in high school. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump has made a habit of doubting women who accuse him and his allies of misconduct.

When numerous women accused him of sexual assault late in the 2016 campaign, Trump called them “liars” and said he would sue them. When Fox News heavies Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes were accused, Trump was among their few defenders. When then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter was accused of physically abusing his ex-wives, Trump vouched for his character. When GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore was accused of pursuing and assaulting teenage girls while in his 30s, Trump still supported him.

Trump has almost always accepted his allies' denials and suggested that this is really all he can do. But on Monday, he went in a different direction in regards to U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh’s denial of allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in the 1980s when both were in high school. Rather than reflexively subscribe to Kavanaugh’s denial and target his accuser, Trump offered a muted, almost magnanimous response.

At the same time, he seemed to preview a more aggressive posture that almost definitely lies ahead — assuming Kavanaugh remains his nominee, at least.

Let’s break it down.


TRUMP: He’s an outstanding intellect. An outstanding judge. Respected by everybody. Never even had a little blemish on his record. The FBI has I think gone through a process six times with him over the years where he went to higher and higher positions. He is somebody very special.

This is Trump’s go-to: To defend the accused person’s character. It inherently casts doubt on the accuser’s account without actually calling them a “liar.” At the same time, he’s only speaking to what he knows about Kavanaugh, and it’s not impossible to square this if we were ever to find proof of Ford’s accusation.

TRUMP: At the same time, we want to go through a process. We want to make sure everything is perfect, everything is just right.

Someone in the White House prevailed upon Trump not to come out guns-blazing. This is the takeaway quote, and it’s disciplined and careful not to alienate skeptical GOP senators like Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) who are urging a cautious approach. Trump must be extremely cautious about senators like Flake and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who are retiring and could torpedo the nomination.

TRUMP: I wish the Democrats could have done this a lot sooner, because they had this information for many months. And they shouldn’t have waited til literally the last days. They should have done it a lot sooner. But with all of that being said we want to go through the process. One thing I will say is that as I understand it, Judge Kavanaugh spent quite a bit of time with Senator Feinstein and it wasn’t even brought up at that meeting and she had this information. So you would have thought certainly that she would have brought it up at the meeting — not wait til everything’s finished and then have to start a process all over again.

This is Trump planting a seed for his future onslaught. Like his initial comments, it’s suggesting the accusation has been politicized without directly saying it. It’s suggesting Democrats are doing something desperate by pushing this now, when they could have done so before.

For what it’s worth, the reason this didn’t come out before, according to Ford and the Democrats she reached out to, is because Ford requested confidentiality.

TRUMP: But with all of it being said, we want to go through a full process. I have great confidence in the U.S. Senate and in their procedures and what they’re doing and I think that’s probably what they’re going to do. They’ll go through a process and hear everybody out. I think it’s important. I believe they think it’s important. But again, he is one of the great intellects and one of the finest people that anybody has known. You look at his references — I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Trump returns to his talking point. Again, this is rather disciplined for him.

Q: Should it be delayed?

TRUMP: I don’t know. It depends on the process. I’d like to see a complete process. I’d like everybody to be very happy. Most importantly, I want the American people to be happy because they’re getting somebody that is great. I want him to go in at the absolute highest level. And I think to do that you have to go through this. If it takes a little delay it’ll take a little delay. It shouldn’t certainly be very much. But again, this is something that should have been brought up long before this. They had the information in July as I understand it. That’s a long time ago and nobody mentioned it until the other day. You know, it’s very unfortunate they didn’t mention it sooner. But with all of that being said, it will, I’m sure, work out very well. You’re talking about an individual who is as high a quality individual as you will ever see.

Other Republicans have agreed that there should be a delay, but it’s key that Trump is signing off on it. At the same time, Trump says repeatedly that it should be a “little delay.” In other words, he’s only going to have so much patience.

And again, Trump suggests the accusation may be political.

Q: Have you spoken with Kavanaugh?

TRUMP: I have not spoken to Judge Kavanaugh.

Q: Has he offered to withdraw?

TRUMP: Next question. What a ridiculous question.

For the first time in this Q&A, Trump lets his emotions get the better of him. The idea that Kavanaugh would withdraw is hardly out of the question. We’ll see if Trump can remain disciplined.

Q: Is he still on track?

TRUMP: Oh I think he’s on track. I think he’s very much on track. If they delay a little bit just to make sure everybody’s happy — they want to be happy. I can tell you the Republican senators want to be a hundred percent happy themselves. They’re doing it very very professionally. Again, this should have been brought up a long time ago.

Trump brings up — for the third time — the idea that the timing of this is suspicious. He’s being cautious, but he’s also making his feelings about whether this actually happened subtly clear.

And anybody who thinks he won’t lean into this idea and drop his guard in the days to come hasn’t been paying attention for the past three years.