When Brett M. Kavanaugh met privately with Sen. Joe Manchin III for two hours this week, the Supreme Court nominee kept repeating one word: “Independent.”
His use of that word could appeal to Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key swing vote for President Trump’s second nominee to the Supreme Court who has asserted independence from other Democrats spoiling for a contentious fight to defeat Kavanaugh.
Inside Manchin’s Senate office, the judge also stressed that he considers the human impact of his rulings. Manchin, whose meeting with Kavanaugh was described by officials familiar with the conversation, on numerous occasions has raised concerns about ongoing legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act, which covers hundreds of thousands of his constituents.
Interviews with more than a dozen senators and other officials familiar with Kavanaugh’s courtesy meetings on Capitol Hill reveal a well-prepared nominee who is ready to field questions about his views on executive power, explain his extensive judicial record or engage in a chummy catch-up session with Republicans whose relationships with Kavanaugh go back years.
“He is the most normal person in the world,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.). “You have a sense that he’s a normal person who relates to average concerns.”
Kavanaugh’s one-on-one sessions — 47 meetings so far, all but one with Republicans — could get more probing and divisive when more Democrats begin meeting with the judge. But most Democrats have declined the traditional courtesy calls, holding off amid a furor over which of the documents in the judge’s significant paper trail should be released.
Although often perfunctory, these meetings shed insight into what kind of an impression a nominee wants to leave on the lawmakers. Last year, Neil M. Gorsuch, whose nomination to the Supreme Court was later confirmed, revealed in a private meeting with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) that he found Trump’s attacks on the judiciary “disheartening” and “demoralizing” — a rebuke that helped Gorsuch distance himself from the president who nominated him.
Still, in the absence of Democrats participating in those meetings — a well-worn part of the confirmation process — Republicans have come away impressed and have promoted a positive narrative about Kavanaugh’s qualifications, on and off Capitol Hill.
There appears to be little revealed during Kavanaugh’s charm offensive that is not known publicly about the judge, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and served for five years in top positions in the George W. Bush White House.
In multiple meetings, Kavanaugh has discussed his skepticism of the Chevron deference, a doctrine stemming from a 1984 Supreme Court ruling that calls on the judiciary to largely defer to federal agencies and their interpretations.
“The way he put it was, ‘Yes, he does have reservations about the Chevron decision,’ ” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said.
Kavanaugh has also delved into his views on legal precedent, with senators describing his philosophy as one that is respectful of stare decisis yet aware of when long-standing precedent should be overturned. One example that surfaced in the discussions with senators, Republicans said, is the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 declaring racial segregation constitutional — a ruling that was overturned by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision decades later.
“Generally, the views largely reflect my own, although I’m not a judge, and that is that there . . . have been precedents in American history that are wrong,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “Plessy vs. Ferguson is an example of a law that Justice [Anthony M.] Kennedy said was wrong on the day it was written, and there comes a time when a court is prepared to confront that.”
Some GOP senators said they pressed Kavanaugh on his views of executive power, particularly after older writings from Kavanaugh surfaced that detailed his argument that presidents while in office should not be distracted by criminal investigations. But the Senate Republicans said they were satisfied with how he explained his viewpoint.
“He basically framed that as, those were the views of ways to improve the country, he felt, in terms of how to make it run smoother,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “I think it’s from his perspective of being so close to a president.”
Senate Republicans have seemed to steer clear of pressing Kavanaugh privately on his views on abortion and Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide, according to the interviews.
The issue of Obamacare has surfaced a few times, such as when Senate Republicans asked Kavanaugh about his dissent in a 2011 D.C. Circuit decision that upheld the constitutionality of the health-care law. In his opinion, Kavanaugh was careful to never actually weigh in on the constitutionality of the law, instead writing that the courts did not have the right to take up the case.
The White House and Senate Republicans need to ensure that their conference stays unified on Kavanaugh, with their majority functionally at 50 GOP senators — the bare minimum needed to confirm any nominee.
But so far, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who are perennial swing votes on contentious issues, have shown little resistance to Kavanaugh or his qualifications to sit on the Supreme Court. Neither has met with him.
Meanwhile, there are three red-state Democrats considered to be the ripest targets for a pro-Kavanaugh vote: Manchin and Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.). The latter two are to meet with Kavanaugh on Aug. 15.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) unofficially plans to hold confirmation hearings in September, despite word from the National Archives on Thursday that it would not be able to review all the documents requested by the committee until the end of October.
Several GOP senators have personal connections to Kavanaugh, underscoring the 53-year-old’s lengthy stint in Washington, which included time clerking for the justice he could succeed and on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) worked alongside Kavanaugh in the Bush administration. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) first met Kavanaugh in 2000 when Cornyn, as the attorney general in Texas, argued a handful of cases before the Supreme Court and Kavanaugh helped him prepare.
“It was a nice, social visit,” Cornyn said. “There didn’t need to be a lot of probing questions or detail because I’ve known him for 18 years.”
And Kavanaugh, whose personal biography Trump touted when he unveiled him as his Supreme Court pick last month, is eager to chat about his daughters, senators said.
“He’s a really humble guy,” Sullivan said. “I mean, you don’t have a lot of guys like that in Washington. You don’t. It’s not fake humility.”
Still others use their private session with Kavanaugh to primarily dole out advice.
When Kavanaugh sat down with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) last month, the former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman laid out the potential obstacles Kavanaugh may face at his confirmation hearings, an official briefed on the meeting said.
It’s unclear when a greater number of Democrats will begin sitting down with Kavanaugh, whom many senators have announced they will oppose. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, indicated this week that her meeting could come soon.
“It’ll certainly be appropriate at a certain time, yes,” Feinstein said. “And I will.”