President Trump’s routine reaction to allegations of sexual assault is to deny, retaliate and repeat. He has dismissed accusations against himself as “phony” and “false,” and when presented with claims against other men, the #MeToo-era president tends to side instinctually with the accused.
But in the case of federal judge Brett M. Kavanaugh — whose Supreme Court nomination is suddenly endangered after a woman accused him of sexual assault when they were in high school — Trump on Monday was uncharacteristically muted.
White House aides said they persuaded the president to refrain from tweeting a defense of Kavanaugh in the accusation’s immediate aftermath and deliberately worked to keep him from meeting personally with the nominee, even though the two men spent most of the day in proximity.
Kavanaugh was hunkered down in the West Wing office of White House Counsel Donald McGahn, strategizing to save his nomination and calling senators to deny the claim against him.
The public accusation from a named accuser against Kavanaugh has not only jeopardized his ascent to the nation’s highest court but also plunged the White House into yet another crisis, imperiling what was supposed to be an all-but-assured Supreme Court victory for an administration short on tangible legislative achievements.
The situation is so fragile that Republican officials said they fear that any impulsive statement by the president could have negative ramifications — for himself, for Kavanaugh or for the GOP overall.
Trump’s advisers calmed him by giving him space to vent privately about Senate Democrats, whom Republicans accuse of improperly withholding the sexual assault allegation until now, officials said. Trump, who spoke Sunday with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), concluded that the confirmation process should continue to be mostly handled by senators and was content trusting them with it, as he had for Justice Neil M. Gorsuch’s successful nomination last year, they said.
Furthermore, according to a presidential adviser, Trump has not immediately viewed the spotlight on Kavanaugh’s alleged conduct as an attack on himself by extension and therefore has not lashed out.
The fraught episode brings the issue of sexual assault into the forefront seven weeks before the midterm elections. Republicans already have been struggling to win the support of suburban and moderate female voters skeptical of a president accused of sexual misbehavior by more than a dozen women.
Trump defended Kavanaugh to reporters Monday afternoon as “an outstanding intellect” and “somebody very special.” When one reporter asked if Kavanaugh had offered to withdraw his nomination, the president snapped: “Next question. What a ridiculous question.”
Still, Trump urged a “complete process” of vetting Kavanaugh. And he said nothing specifically about the accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
“They’ll go through a process and hear everybody out,” Trump said. “. . . I’d like to see a complete process. I’d like everybody to be very happy. . . . If it takes a little delay, it’ll take a little delay.”
The president’s comments underscored the hesitation inside the White House to rush into war on Kavanaugh’s behalf. The consensus among Trump’s advisers as the crisis initially unfolded was to defend Kavanaugh and try to keep his nomination on track, but there was disagreement on strategy and the degree of support.
McGahn — who has invested considerable personal capital in the nomination of his longtime friend and hovered behind Kavanaugh during his contentious confirmation hearings — pushed for a vigorous and robust public defense of the judge, led by the president, officials said. Kavanaugh wanted to issue a statement and worked with McGahn and principal deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah, among others, to craft it.
Leonard Leo, the influential Federalist Society vice president, also huddled with Kavanaugh over the weekend and has urged the White House and Senate Republicans to stick by the nominee, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Other White House advisers, however, urged a more restrained approach, at least at first, preferring to let the process play out before Trump inextricably binds himself to a problematic nominee.
One senior White House official said Trump thinks Kavanaugh can survive and told top advisers he thought the judge’s denial of wrongdoing was forceful. “The president’s thinking is, don’t get out there and defend him if he’s not defending himself,” this official said. “But he liked that he defended himself.”
But two Trump confidants Monday also underscored the president’s history of self-interested calculations amid political tumult. “He’s going to do what’s best for Trump,” said one of them, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “The president thinks it’s rough for Kavanaugh, and he’d decry the process as disgusting if he withdraws, but he’d nominate a carbon copy of Kavanaugh in a second if he goes down.”
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, set the tone early Monday for how the White House would handle the allegations. After speaking with the president late Sunday and early Monday, Conway said that Ford’s claims should be fully heard.
“This woman should not be insulted, and she should not be ignored,” Conway said during an interview on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends.” She called Kavanaugh “a man of character and integrity” and noted the sworn testimony he had already given the Senate Judiciary Committee, but she said Ford should have a chance to tell her story, too.
Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter and a senior White House adviser, privately agreed with Conway’s message and told colleagues that she had struck the appropriate tone, according to people familiar with the internal discussions.
But Conway’s comments caused some momentary friction with allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who argued that the White House’s message coordination was ineffective.
“No one was ready or briefed about the line Kellyanne Conway was going to take on Monday on Fox News,” said one veteran Republican close to McConnell who was not authorized to speak publicly. “That surprised people because it suddenly wasn’t clear where the White House was going on this.”
A second person familiar with the frustrations in McConnell’s orbit said, “It’s like someone gave her a different song sheet.”
But Conway’s defenders said she was reflecting Trump’s views — which he articulated himself several hours later — and making sure that perspective was driving the Republican response.
Conway reiterated the position in an interview on PBS’s “NewsHour” on Monday evening: “It’s good to hear from both the accuser and the accused here and allow the Senate to weigh what they learn in those exchanges along with the mountain of other testimonial evidence.”
Some Kavanaugh allies conveyed concern to the White House that high-caliber surrogates had not been dispatched to cable news shows to strongly defend him. One possible defender, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, did not hold a press briefing Monday.
Kavanaugh supporters argued that for the judge’s nomination to survive, he needs Trump to fully deploy his bully pulpit. But the White House response Monday focused on Kavanaugh’s statement in which he was unequivocal. “I have never done anything like what the accuser describes — to her or to anyone,” he said.
At day’s end, Shah issued a statement that read: “Judge Kavanaugh looks forward to a hearing where he can clear his name of this false allegation. He stands ready to testify tomorrow if the Senate is ready to hear him.”
One White House official said they deferred to Kavanaugh to address the allegations because no one else, including the president, could better speak to his character than the judge himself.
Trump’s comments Monday about Kavanaugh contrast with the way he has dealt with such accusations in the past. Trump has repeatedly denied allegations of sexual assault or misconduct by more than a dozen women against him, and he has criticized other women for claiming to have had sexual relationships with him.
In his new book, “Fear,” Bob Woodward also reports that Trump gave the following advice to a friend who had acknowledged bad behavior with women: “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women. If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead.”
Trump followed that playbook last fall when he stood by Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama after several women accused him of unwanted sexual advances against them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.
Moore lost the special election to Democrat Doug Jones, a crushing defeat for Trump, who had put his credibility behind Moore’s candidacy. The rebuke lingers and is one of the reasons, aides and others close to the president said, that Trump has been “gun shy,” as one put it.
Not everyone in Trump’s orbit was following the president’s approach Monday. Some GOP activists stood firmly by Kavanaugh amid the firestorm and prepared for a drawn-out battle over his nomination. The hashtag #StandWithKavanaugh flashed on Twitter, while conservative commentators such as Erick Erickson railed against what they called a “character assassination.”
The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group that has been a major proponent of Republican nominees to the high court, said Monday that it would launch a $1.5 million advertising blitz to support Kavanaugh, featuring a longtime friend of the judge who would speak to his character.
In close coordination with McConnell, McGahn has moved to dramatically reshape the federal judiciary. The president has filled dozens of circuit and district court vacancies, as well as the Supreme Court seat now held by Gorsuch, whose confirmation process was relatively smooth.
Installing Kavanaugh was meant to be McGahn’s farewell gift to the conservative legal establishment before departing later this fall as White House counsel. Instead, on Monday, he found himself holed up with Kavanaugh, scrambling to field a barrage of questions as the nomination ground to a halt.