Nearly the totality of questions posed directly to Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh challenging him on allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman while he was in high school and exposed himself to another woman while in college came from Democratic senators during a hearing last week. We feel comfortable in simply dispatching his sit-down with Fox News, in which the question on which he was pressed hardest asked him to speculate about the partisan motivations of his opponents.
Those questions from the Democrats, 10 of them, covered five minutes apiece. Add in a few questions from Rachel Mitchell, the Arizona prosecutor hired by Senate Republicans to undercut his accuser’s story, and that’s about an hour of questions, including Kavanaugh’s often-capacious answers. Often capacious and often misleading or false. His comments about yearbook entries, his defenses of obviously suggestive comments and his diminishing of the scale of his drinking were riddled with gaps and misdirections, on those occasions when he answered the questions at all.
Kavanaugh’s glide path to the Supreme Court was interrupted for a week by a request from wavering Republicans that the FBI look further into his story. The FBI did — but not much. The Washington Post could confirm interviews with only six additional people as of Wednesday night, excluding, most notably, Kavanaugh himself. That hour he spent rebuffing Democrats under oath has been explored no further by any investigators, save the media and the general public.
But President Trump succeeded remarkably in establishing the benchmark that Kavanaugh needed to pass after the allegations emerged, and it wasn’t a full reckoning of Kavanaugh’s past behavior or fidelity in his approach to that reckoning. It was, instead, that Kavanaugh needed to withstand the anger of his Democratic opponents, no matter how manufactured or how righteous. By slotting this fight into the familiar, comfortable fight of Democrats vs. Republicans, Trump managed to dramatically shift the odds in the favor of his nominee.
It’s important to remember the context of the moment in which Kavanaugh’s nomination was presented. It’s a moment when more than half of Republicans and Democrats see members of the other party as posing a serious threat to the United States. It’s a moment in which half of Republicans and half of Democrats say that they fear those on the other side. When more than 4 in 10 see the other party as dishonest.
That’s fertile soil for an effort to shift questions about Kavanaugh from ones about the allegations he faces — which remain as robust, or now even more so, as when they were first introduced — to questions about what the Democrats are trying to do to a conservative. That the first report about Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations came from a letter leaked to the news media that had been sitting on the desk of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) didn’t help that perception, certainly, but even had Feinstein made it public in late July, when she first received it, it’s hard to believe that much of the ensuing fight would have taken a significantly different sheen.
The effort to overlay partisanship on the Kavanaugh nomination is proved as successful perhaps most obviously by a column from the New York Times’s Bret Stephens. Stephens has been a critic of Trump but, on Thursday morning, offered a defense of the president.
“I’m grateful because Trump has not backed down in the face of the slipperiness, hypocrisy and dangerous standard-setting deployed by opponents of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court,” Stephens writes. “I’m grateful because ferocious and even crass obstinacy has its uses in life, and never more so than in the face of sly moral bullying.”
What is that bullying, slipperiness and hypocrisy? That Kavanaugh wasn’t given the presumption of innocence on assault allegations, that Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) suggested that questions about Kavanaugh’s credibility should disqualify him, that his own newspaper wrote unfair articles, that his own time at prep school was now tainted. That Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) dared point out to Kavanaugh that false testimony was reason, in a criminal court, to disregard testimony from the same witness broadly. And, inevitably, because of Feinstein.
There are ready rejoinders for these points. Stephens doesn’t seem overly concerned about making determinations about Trump’s innocence in the Russia affair, for example; those observers who aren’t jurors in a criminal case often and fairly reach their own determinations about what to believe. His presentation of Booker’s argument ignores that Booker is saying Kavanaugh’s guilt on the assault allegations are irrelevant to Kavanaugh’s nomination because the dissembling under oath is disqualifying by itself.
The Blumenthal argument, though, is the most baffling. Yes, Blumenthal once lied about his military service, a disgraceful act. But that Stephens puts the senator's perceived hypocrisy above the fact that his point about honest testimony is both germane and well-taken gives the game away.
Stephens stands with Trump now because the president and his allies successfully made the Kavanaugh nomination about standing not with the nominee but with the political right, of which Stephens is a member. The Kavanaugh nomination was positioned in a way that was specifically meant to entice people like Stephens (or the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal), and it worked. Kavanaugh’s nomination is overwhelmingly supported by Republicans to the point that it is now the most polarizing issue of Trump’s administration. That level of polarization is going to bring people off the benches.
Kavanaugh seems, at this point, to be more likely to be confirmed than not. The introduction of the allegations from Ford and Deborah Ramirez have come at personal cost to them and, indirectly, to others ancillary to the allegations, such as Renate Schroeder Dolphin. Ford’s wariness about coming forward (the cause of that delay on Feinstein’s part) was understandable before her name became public and has only been made more understandable since.
Ford wasn't interviewed by the FBI this week, either. Since her allegation became public, she has been submitted to the same amount of questioning as Kavanaugh, those questions at last week's hearing. But the questions she faced didn't come mostly from senators, several of whom were positioning themselves for 2020 and who harped repeatedly on the necessity of an FBI investigation.
Ford was questioned for about an hour by an experienced prosecutor. Put another way, the official scrutiny of Ford was more robust following her stepping forward than was the official scrutiny of Kavanaugh. Trump's well-honed ability to broaden partisan divides made it so that this disparity likely won't matter.
That Fox News question about his accusers was useless, but prescient.