Trump, White House Will Let Senators Resolve Kavanaugh Fracas

President sharply questions top Judiciary Democrat Feinstein’s tactics

President Donald Trump greets Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his family while announcing his nomination to replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy on July 9. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump greets Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his family while announcing his nomination to replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy on July 9. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 17, 2018 at 4:06pm

President Donald Trump and his White House staff have handed Senate Republicans the reins, hoping they can steer Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh around sexual misconduct allegations and onto the high court.

Trump remained silent about allegations made by Kavanaugh’s accuser for most of Monday before the president backed delaying the confirmation process — which had included a planned Thursday vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee — so senators can hear from Kavanaugh and accuser Christine Blasey Ford. But Trump also called the notion of withdrawing the nomination “ridiculous.”

“If it takes a little delay, it’ll take a little delay. I’m sure it will work out very well. … With all of that being said, we want to go through the process,” the president said Monday afternoon. “We want to go through a full process … and hear everybody out.”

Amid a firestorm of public pressure, senior Senate Republicans, including Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, publicly stated that senators should give Ford, 51, a chance to tell her side of an alleged 1982 incident at a party while she and Kavanaugh were in high school. Ford has said that Kavanaugh — aided by a friend — trapped her in a bedroom, pinned her down and sexually assaulted her. Ford contends Kavanaugh would have raped her but was too intoxicated; he vehemently denies the charges.

Almost immediately following a Sunday Washington Post article in which Ford went public, Democrats began calling for public testimony by accuser and accused. Republican senators were more methodical, many waiting until Monday to call for the Judiciary Committee to follow its procedures and obtain post-confirmation hearing information via telephone calls. (Though Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins, a key swing vote, said she thought both Kavanaugh and Ford should testify under oath about the allegations.)

But the message from the White House was clear: Trump and his team would do nothing to block public testimony or private conversations with the federal judge and his accuser. The ball was in the committee’s court, and Republican leaders picked it up and ran on Monday evening, announcing the panel would hold a public hearing with Kavanaugh and Ford on Sept. 24.

[Three Ways Kavanaugh Nomination Could Play Out After Accuser Speaks]

“Anyone who comes forward as Dr. Ford has done deserves to be heard. My staff has reached out to Dr. Ford to hear her account, and they held a follow-up call with Judge Kavanaugh this afternoon,” Grassley said in a statement announcing the hearing.

And as Senate Judiciary Republicans emerged from a closed-door meeting, the White House said the nominee welcomes a public hearing.

“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,” White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said in a statement.

Senate Judiciary Democrats said they wanted the FBI to reopen the background investigation into Kavanaugh for a full probe before the public hearing — and would rather it be delayed until then. “Otherwise, we’re just going to be shooting in the dark,” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said.

Not on the president

But the back and forth underscored what the president basically described as a mess made by senators and one for them to mop up.

“As I understand it, Judge Kavanaugh spent quite a bit of time with Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein and it wasn’t even brought up at that [private] meeting and she had this information,” Trump said, referring to the top Judiciary Committee Democrat. “So, you would have thought, certainly, that she would have brought it up at the meeting — not wait until everything’s finished and then have to start a process all over again.”

As Republican senators trickled back to Washington, Judiciary member Orrin G. Hatch of Utah told CNN he had talked to Kavanaugh on the phone. The nominee denied during that conversation even being at the 1982 party in question. He believes Ford is mistaking Kavanaugh for someone who was present at the party. But in two statements released by the White House, Kavanaugh did not deny being there.

Some legal analysts see the White House endorsing a Kavanaugh statement saying he would testify as willingness to turn the matter into the kind of allegation versus denial fight that can be found in courtrooms on any given day.

“This is the risk of a hearing, especially if the GOP, which will run it, isn’t committed to getting to the truth,” Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney, tweeted Monday. “The reality is, many sexual assaults are he said/she said situations. That doesn’t mean women aren’t credible.”

A White House official confirmed Kavanaugh was at the executive mansion on Monday, but gave no indication he would meet with Trump, describing his presence as regular during his confirmation process. The president later said he had not spoken with the nominee since the publication of the Post story on Sunday afternoon.

Trump often remains in the White House residence until around 11 a.m., when he typically has his intelligence briefing. As the official was confirming that Kavanaugh was in the building, the president was tweeting about what he sees as an internal FBI conspiracy to wreck his 2016 candidacy and take down his presidency — but not Ford’s accusations. Other Monday tweets focused on tariff threats, Hurricane Florence and the price of prescription drugs.

Like on Sunday and Monday, the president has remained quiet in the past about controversies related to his presidency, only to make his feelings known later via tweets or public comments.

Different this time

The president defended both the nominee’s character and qualifications on Monday, dubbing him “special,” adding, “He’s an outstanding intellect. An outstanding judge. Respected by everybody. Never even had a little blemish on his record.” But the president did not go as far as he has in the past when other prominent men have been accused of sexual misconduct.

[Kavanaugh Would Testify Against Sexual Assault Allegation]

Of former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, who was accused of assault by two ex-wives, Trump initially told reporters that Porter “says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that.” And when onetime campaign aide Corey Lewandowski was accused of assaulting a female reporter in 2016, the candidate Trump wondered aloud: “How do you know those bruises weren’t there before?”

Trump himself has faced sexual misconduct allegations. But one former senior aide to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton offered another theory for Trump’s silence in the 24 hours between the Post article and the event a small group of reporters was allowed to briefly observe and ask questions.

“My hypothesis on why Trump hasn’t tweeted on Kavanaugh is he knows that his base doesn’t actually care about Kavanaugh,” said Neera Tanden, president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “And all the energy is on one side and will grow. Against confirmation.”

The president has said Twitter is the best way to get his message to his base without the media, in his view, distorting those messages.

Tanden’s theory suggests Trump is leaving how to handle the suddenly tough situation to his staff. As a small group of reporters waited to enter a midday event with the president outside the Roosevelt Room, a reporter asked Chief of Staff John F. Kelly how things were looking for Kavanaugh. Kelly did not respond.

To that end, White House Counsel Don McGahn has been overseeing Kavanaugh’s confirmation process. Trump has been upset with his top government lawyer in the past, and McGahn is set to leave the White House following Kavanaugh’s confirmation — or, suddenly, perhaps a different outcome.

Watch: Judiciary Democrats Object to Kavanaugh Vote Plan, But Date is Set

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Todd Ruger contributed to this report