ANALYSIS | Donald Trump’s remarks Monday night during a ceremonial swearing-in of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was more than partisan. It personified how the president often fuels America’s increasingly tribal politics.
Washington and the country are trying to recover from several gut-wrenching weeks that included multiple sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh and the emotional testimony of the then-nominee and one of his accusers, Christine Blasey Ford. But the president, during a ceremony in the ornate East Room, did not try to use his office to heal a grieving — and feuding — country.
Instead, Trump orchestrated and led a deeply partisan ceremony that included no call for national unity. Instead, the president who mostly tries to appease his own conservative base while attacking any and all political foes likely only drove both sides further into their respective win-at-all-costs camps. Trump doesn’t really do subtle; he acknowledged early in the ceremony that it would be a change from previous stately events.
“I would like to begin tonight’s proceeding differently than perhaps any other event of such magnitude. On behalf of our nation, I want to apologize to Brett and the entire Kavanaugh family for the terrible pain and suffering you have been forced to endure,” he said, referring to Senate Judiciary Committee members questioning he and Ford all day on Sept. 24 then debating the nomination for around five hours the next day.
The president chose against sending any such empathetic sentiments to Ford and her family, who have had to relocate several times and received death threats. He indirectly mentioned her — but mostly so he could criticize Senate Democrats — before again showing deep sympathy for the Kavanaughs.
“Those who step forward to serve our country deserve a fair and dignified evaluation, not a campaign of political and personal destruction based on lies and deception. What happened to the Kavanaugh family violates every notion of fairness, decency, and due process,” Trump said.
The president gave shoutouts to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, as well as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who gave a lengthy floor speech Friday announcing she would vote for Kavanaugh because he should have been assumed innocent until proven guilty. Her speech angered Democratic women, but Trump called the speech “brave and eloquent.”
The optics were less-than-flattering for Kavanaugh. Under his arm was a portfolio with a speech he later read in which he talked about a judge’s requirement to be unbiased and nonpartisan. But as Trump called out those Republican members and every GOP senator on the Judiciary Committee, Kavanaugh smiled and applauded. He also wore a wide smile and applauded after other pro-GOP Trump lines.
The ever-tribal Trump also addressed Kavanaugh directly and said: “I must state that you, sir, under historic scrutiny, were proven innocent.”
At least half the country, however, has reached the opposite conclusion. Trump did nothing to assuage those Americans after he and senior aides last week acknowledged that poll data in red states — where the president remains extremely popular — showed deep support for Kavanaugh and disbelief of Ford.
Trump last week said the matter had become a “rally cry” for Republicans, and warned of a “very scary” time for young men in which a single “false” accusation could ruin an otherwise “exemplary” life. The president appeared to address his supporters’ fears, which he helped create.
“Our country, a man or woman must always be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty,” the president said. “It’s about what kind of nation we're going to be and what kind of country our children will inherit. … It is up to each of us, and to all Americans watching tonight, to answer that question. It is up to us to reclaim our heritage of equal and impartial justice.”
“Heritage” is a word used often in some of the far-right circles that have gained new prominence and influence during Trump’s rise to power.
Trump was back at it Tuesday morning, tweeting that protesters who were on Capitol Hill the last few weeks were "paid" actors.
The paid D.C. protesters are now ready to REALLY protest because they haven’t gotten their checks - in other words, they weren’t paid! Screamers in Congress, and outside, were far too obvious - less professional than anticipated by those paying (or not paying) the bills!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 9, 2018
The audience in the East Room also sent a few signals about their feelings of uniting America’s political tribes.
Kavanaugh, not ignoring the nastiness of the last few weeks, said he took “this office with gratitude and no bitterness.”
“On the Supreme Court, I will seek to be a force for stability and unity. My goal is to be a great Justice for all Americans and for all of America. I will work very hard to achieve that goal,” he said, pausing for what amounts to a traditional applause line in American politics.
Trump’s tribal attacks often were met with loud, enthusiastic applause. But this one from the 114th Supreme Court justice was met with noticeably tepid applause.
Watch: High Tension on the Hill Leading Up to Kavanaugh Vote