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‘Willing to go to the mat’: How Trump and Republicans carried Kavanaugh to the cusp of confirmation

These are the key moments of Sen. Susan Collins's (R-Maine) Senate floor speech, before she vowed to vote for Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court Oct. 5. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)
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Again and again, President Trump was instructed not to do it. A cadre of advisers, confidants and lawmakers all urged him — implored him, really — not to personally attack the women who had accused Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

So he did it anyway.

Addressing thousands at a boisterous rally in Mississippi, Trump relied on his own visceral sense of the moment and mocked Christine Blasey Ford for gaps in her memory, directly impugning the accuser’s credibility.

Establishment Republicans initially reacted with horror. But Trump’s 36-second off-script jeremiad proved a key turning point toward victory for the polarizing nominee, White House officials and Kavanaugh allies said, turbocharging momentum behind Kavanaugh just as his fate appeared most in doubt. 

Tuesday evening in Southhaven, Miss., Trump laid into Ford with the ruthlessness of an attack dog and the pacing of a stand-up comedian. The crowd roared with laughter and applause. Aides privately crowed as footage of the performance was played and replayed many times over, shifting the national discussion from scrutiny of Kavanaugh’s honesty and drinking habits to doubts about Ford’s memory. And in Washington, Republican senators — though they condemned Trump’s mockery of Ford — felt emboldened to aggressively demand Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which became a near-certainty Friday and looks to become official with a vote Saturday.

“As long as he was willing to go to the mat for him, it fortified probably people up here, too,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the chamber’s third-ranking Republican leader.

The three-week maelstrom — from when Ford first shared her story with The Washington Post to Saturday’s expected confirmation vote — fused the nation’s cultural reckoning over sexual assault with tribal politics, carrying ramifications not only for next month’s midterm elections but for the long-term identities of both political parties.

At the center, as always, was Trump, who used his bully pulpit to champion Kavanaugh and accused men everywhere. Initially restraining his combative impulses and deferring to the Senate on process, the president ultimately followed his own gut as if he were, in the description of one aide, “a strategic boogeyman.”

The result is likely to be, according to counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, “a crowning achievement of his presidency.”

“If people look at this as an apocalyptic fight, he’s the ultimate fighter who doesn’t give up, doesn’t give in and doesn’t back down, even if there’s an avalanche of criticism and vicious, vile reactions from the other side,” Conway said.

Yet for all of Trump’s public declarations, the actual deciders of Kavanaugh’s fate were a trio of Senate Republicans with an independent streak — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona — whose demands for an FBI investigation prolonged the process but also ended up ensuring Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Republican leaders, who for nearly two years have accommodated Trump’s brushfires in service to a shared agenda, plowed through the chaos to fulfill a wish of the movement right: replacing the Supreme Court seat held by swing vote Anthony M. Kennedy with a conservative ideologue. 

The GOP’s hardball approach left Democrats shaken and defeated.

“They are succeeding because they have broken all the rules and norms,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “They adopted the strategy that the best defense is a good offense.”

This portrait of Kavanaugh’s fraught confirmation process is the result of interviews with more than two dozen senators, Senate staffers, White House officials and outside Republican advisers, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss behind-the-scenes machinations.

After three weeks of uncertainty and pitched partisanship, it was Collins on Friday who all but determined the outcome in an extraordinary 44-minute address on the Senate floor.

The Maine moderate had signaled her thinking earlier with a “yea” on a procedural vote to move forward, before sitting down to lunch with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the members-only Senate dining room.

Collins struck defiant notes in defense of Kavanaugh and lambasted liberal activists and senators, whom she argued never gave the nominee a fair shake. Although she said she found Ford’s testimony “sincere, painful and compelling” and believes she has survived a sexual assault, she explained in some detail that she did not see any substantiating witnesses or evidence for her claims that Kavanaugh was the aggressor.

The final words of her address were the ones many GOP leaders had been longing to hear: “I will vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh.”

McConnell led the Republican senators — nearly two dozen in attendance — in a standing ovation. One by one, Collins’s compatriots celebrated her decision. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) enveloped Collins in a giant bear hug.

Within moments, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) became the only Democrat to say he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh, and coupled with Flake’s earlier expression of support all but guaranteed the nominee’s ascension to the Supreme Court.

'I don't even know him'

From the moment Kennedy announced his retirement on June 27, the White House realized the battle to fill his seat would be far more difficult than the one for Justice Neil M. Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia. Picking a successor for Kennedy’s swing seat gave Trump an opportunity to solidify a conservative majority on the court for decades to come — and White House advisers decided they would need to mount a vigorous political campaign.

The chief strategist was Donald McGahn, the White House counsel who has had a tempestuous relationship with Trump but rose up through the conservative movement.

Trump, too, understood the stakes, aides said. If he could solidify the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, the president calculated, that move alone could permanently endear him to Republican voters — especially evangelical Christians — and override doubts about how he conducts himself in office.

Trump had no particular personal affinity for Kavanaugh, although a dinner was arranged between the two men and their wives to cultivate a relationship. “I don’t even know him,” the president told the Mississippi crowd, “so it’s not like, ‘Oh, gee, I want to protect my friend.’ ”

Nevertheless, Trump felt invested in Kavanaugh, and he entrusted McGahn, with whom the president barely was on speaking terms, to muscle through this final victory before departing the White House later this fall. 

“Kavanaugh’s an establishment guy. He was a Bush guy,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), referencing the nominee’s experience as White House staff secretary under President George W. Bush. “There was a lot of pushback, you know — ‘Don’t go [down] that road,’ ‘That’s not why you won,’ and he said, ‘Wait a minute. I want to pick the best people to be on the court I can,’ and he said he was incredibly impressed by his background, just the whole package of Kavanaugh.”

McGahn built a war room on the fourth floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building staffed with nearly a dozen lawyers, two communications operatives and a stable of Kavanaugh’s former law clerks. A farm team at the Justice Department conducted research and drafted talking points. Leonard Leo, a longtime leader of the conservative Federalist Society, and to a more limited degree Republican lawyer William A. Burck, were key advisers. And an assortment of well-funded outside groups, including the Judicial Crisis Network, worked to buff Kavanaugh’s public image through television and online advertisements and surrogate media appearances.

The team treated Kavanaugh like they would a presidential candidate, including choreographing his public movements. When Kavanaugh visited Capitol Hill, McGahn and an entourage of clerks and aides accompanied the judge to meetings with senators and devised routes to avoid interactions with protesters.

Still, even the Kavanaugh operation drew pointed criticism from Republican allies on Capitol Hill and others in Trump’s orbit, who at times privately questioned everything from the selection of Kavanaugh himself to the war room’s ability to effectively manage a bloody-knuckled partisan brawl.

'Speak from your heart'

The story of Kavanaugh’s nomination can be told in two parts. Until Sept. 16, he was a milquetoast Bush Republican whose confirmation hearings had failed to animate much of the country. But that Sunday, when The Washington Post published Ford’s detailed account of sexual assault when she and Kavanaugh were teenagers in suburban Maryland, the Supreme Court nomination gripped the nation — casting Kavanaugh as a predator with a drinking problem for some and an unfairly smeared folk hero for others.

The initial Ford allegations momentarily sent the White House reeling, as they scrambled to assess her credibility and the veracity of her claims. The president was immediately advised, including by Conway, not to attack Ford, but to say that she deserved to be heard — a line he stuck to for several days.

In the coming day, stories of Kavanaugh’s alleged debauchery as a high school and college student dribbled out from former classmates, as well as two additional claims of sexual misconduct: Deborah Ramirez claimed in the New Yorker that Kavanaugh had exposed himself to her as an undergraduate at Yale University, and Julie Swetnick, represented by attorney and potential Democratic presidential candidate Michael Avenatti, suggested that Kavanaugh had been present at parties where women were gang-raped.

But the additional claims had an unexpected effect: Widely deemed less credible than Ford’s assault allegation, they gave Kavanaugh’s supporters fresh ammunition to cast all of the charges as a political hit job.

Kavanaugh, a former political staffer who had micromanaged his confirmation process and media coverage of his nomination, was eager to defend himself publicly — and McGahn, McConnell, Trump and other advisers were encouraging him to do just that. Kavanaugh and his wife, Ashley, sat for a television interview with Fox News Channel’s Martha MacCallum.

The interview was widely criticized — “objectively a horrible idea,” in the words of one White House official. Kavanaugh appeared wooden and dispassionate, sticking only to a few talking points, and Trump, an avid consumer and critic of television news, thought he appeared weak and unconvincing.

But the Kavanaugh team believed the Monday sit-down served its purpose: He was on camera denying allegations in clips that helped fill the news vacuum in the run-up to that Thursday’s scheduled Senate testimony from him and Ford.

“It filled the void,” a second White House official said.

Then came the whiplash — more than eight hours of Senate testimony, first from Ford, then from Kavanaugh, that captivated the nation and even left the president seesawing from fatalism to enthusiasm about Kavanaugh’s confirmation prospects.

When Ford had finally finished, McGahn spoke privately to Kavanaugh, who had not watched, urging him to be passionate. “Speak from your heart,” McGahn advised the nominee, according to someone familiar with their discussion.

Kavanaugh roared into the committee room and shouted his opening statement, which he had personally written the night before with the help of one trusted clerk. The hotly defiant performance was so effective in the eyes of his advisers — and, perhaps most importantly, of the president — that a group gathered in Vice President Pence’s Capitol Hill office began to cheer and pump their fists. Some even had tears in their eyes.

'It fired up his base'

The hearing galvanized activists on both sides and left jittery senators — including Flake, one of 11 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee — torn between competing accounts and party loyalties.

Flake, who has repeatedly criticized Trump’s rhetoric and had been positioning himself as the pivotal swing vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination, decided to vote “yes” last Friday to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination from the committee to the full Senate floor.

But Flake was confronted that day in a Senate elevator by two women who tearfully accused him of dismissing credible allegations of assault. He told fellow senators the FBI should reopen its background investigation to review the sexual misconduct allegations.

Flake, along with Murkowski and Collins, met with McConnell and the committee’s Republican members in the leader’s Capitol office and said they would not vote to confirm Kavanaugh until there had been an FBI investigation. The trio laid out the scope of the probe, which would take no more than one week and which they decided would not include Swetnick’s claims.

“How do we confine it to credible allegations versus any number of things that we would’ve expected to come out?” recalled Senate Judiciary member Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

McConnell spoke with Trump and convinced him that the only option was to delay a vote and move forward with the FBI probe, according to people familiar with their conversation.

McConnell understood that Murkowski, who generally keeps her own counsel, was the true wild card. After being personally lobbied by sexual assault survivors from Alaska, she announced Friday morning that she would not vote to confirm Kavanaugh.

In the closing days of the Kavanaugh fight, Trump’s role was mostly public-facing. His aides conceded that the president would not have much sway with the trio of Republicans who were on the bubble.

“I think in terms of the people that we needed to in the end win over, it’s sometimes the less said is better,” Thune said, referring to Trump’s role.

On the campaign trail, however, Trump ratcheted up the partisan warfare at his rallies. In Mississippi, the president — already fuming over a New York Times investigation into his family’s allegedly fraudulent tax schemes — felt the media was not properly scrutinizing Ford’s account and decided to engage.

“How did you get home? ‘I don’t remember,’ ” Trump said, reenacting Ford’s hearing. “How did you get there? ‘I don’t remember.’ Where is the place? ‘I don’t remember.’ How many years ago was it? ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.’ ”

The riff lasted less than a minute, but had lasting ramifications. The senators whose votes Kavanaugh was wooing said they were aghast at the president’s rally-stage behavior. But Kavanaugh allies saw a clear benefit: An argument by the president that bucked up Kavanaugh, discredited Ford and became a clarion call for conservatives.

More than two dozen Trump supporters interviewed at the president’s campaign rally Thursday in Minnesota said they wish he had not gone after Ford, fretting that doing so was not presidential. Yet many also acknowledged the president had simply spoken aloud what many of them thought privately.

“There are things he says that I wish he wouldn’t say, but I will take it — for all that he has done, I’ll take it,” said Matthew Hoffland, 24, a web developer from Sparta, Wis. “It fired up his base.”

Jenna Johnson in Rochester, Minn., contributed to this report.