President Trump delivered his most direct attacks to date about Brett M. Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, on Tuesday night. Speaking at a rally in Mississippi, Trump mocked Ford’s testimony last week, imitating her and recounting the details of her alleged assault that she said she couldn’t recall.
It was a stunning scene of a president publicly questioning a sexual assault accuser’s account. But even more than that, it was a sharp reversal by Trump personally — an almost complete contradiction of what he had said just four days prior.
The day after Ford’s testimony, Trump on Friday declared her to be a “very credible” witness.
“I thought her testimony was very compelling, and she looks like a very fine woman to me. A very fine woman,” Trump said. He also praised Kavanaugh’s testimony before adding: “But certainly she was a very credible witness. She was very good in many respects.”
That doesn’t comport at all with what Trump did Tuesday night, when he deliberately attacked her credibility. Trump’s allusions to the things she couldn’t remember were clearly geared toward suggesting that she had a selective memory or that her memory can’t be trusted. Trump tacitly admitted what he said Friday wasn’t honest.
But what changed, besides the date on the calendar? Has Trump made a political calculus that it’s time to go after Ford?
When it comes to winning votes for Kavanaugh, the strategy wouldn’t seem terribly sound. By Wednesday morning, both Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) decried Trump’s display. Collins said Trump’s comments “were just plain wrong,” while Flake called them “kind of appalling.”
Update: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has joined Flake and Collins in criticizing Trump, meaning all three GOP senators who forced the delay have now spoke out against the president.
That doesn’t mean the key swing votes on Kavanaugh will be more likely to vote against him, but it doesn’t seem to have helped. (Flake, in particular, has decried the partisan nature of the Kavanaugh fight, and Trump certainly drove that home.) If they voted against Kavanaugh, along with every Democrat, his nomination would fail.
Trump’s approach might make sense from an electoral perspective — but only a narrow one.
It’s broadly thought that the extended Kavanaugh fight might help Republicans hold the Senate, given that many of the battlegrounds are red states that are likely to be pro-Kavanaugh. Voters in those states might feel aggrieved, the logic goes, by what Democrats are doing, and it may reinforce the importance of electing Republicans. For a flavor of the dicey politics here, look no further than the fact that up-for-reelection Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) still haven’t come out against Kavanaugh.
There is also evidence that this could be rallying the GOP base that until recently had lagged behind the Democratic base on enthusiasm. A Gallup poll released over the weekend showed GOP enthusiasm, which has lagged in most polls, approaching parity with Democrats. GOP pollsters and candidates also report anecdotal increases in engagement.
A Quinnipiac University poll this week showed the GOP closing the gap on the generic ballot somewhat, from 12 to seven points. (The gap has narrowed in the RealClearPolitics polling average — but only slightly. More data is required.) Quinnipiac also showed only modest change in the overall question of whether to confirm Kavanaugh, with Republicans still in favor. That could embolden Trump and his fellow GOP senators not to back down, knowing this at the very least isn’t a fool’s errand.
At the same time, Kavanaugh is still unpopular. The Quinnipiac poll showed that voters overall oppose his confirmation 48-42, and they believe Ford’s testimony more than his by a 48-41 margin. While those numbers might look better in states such as North Dakota and West Virginia, the House is a very different animal. It will largely be decided by suburban districts, many of which went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. There are about two dozen districts won by both Clinton and a GOP member of Congress.
There is a real chance that the Kavanaugh situation — and Trump’s very public mocking of Ford — could imperil these districts and further increase Democrats' chances of winning the House. Just as the GOP holds the Senate if it becomes about party, the GOP probably loses these House districts if it becomes about party and Trump. Ditto if it becomes about gender, given that Democrats have a record number of women running.
Which brings us back to Kavanaugh’s nomination. Winning elections is something you do, in large part, to nominate and confirm Supreme Court justices. If Republicans had to choose between a new justice or holding Congress right now, they may well take the justice. Doing anything to imperil that all-important goal just to hold the Senate for two more years is probably not what’s called for.
The simplest explanation, as it often is with Trump, is that he’s simply being Trump — that he’s either not being strategic or that he’s looking out for Trump first and foremost. This may not be particularly helpful to Kavanaugh or to Republicans trying to hold both chambers of Congress, but at least it might help Trump stoke the culture wars that have so rallied the GOP base to his side. It’s also very on-brand for a president who called the women who accused him of sexual misconduct “liars.” It’s quite possible this is just what he really thinks, and the smart people around him could keep him from saying it for only so long.
What’s clear, though, is that if Kavanaugh’s nomination does fail — which is, perhaps, still unlikely but possible — history may not look kindly upon what Trump did Tuesday night. It seemed an unnecessary risk, at best.