ANALYSIS — Senior White House officials for two weeks treated Christine Blasey Ford, as one put it Wednesday, like a “Fabergé egg.” Then the woman who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault found out that, eventually, everything for President Donald Trump is still all about his base.
At the White House on Wednesday, the focus was on attacking Ford. Aides discussed her “memory lapses” and “factual inconsistencies” as they tried to paint her as an unreliable witness or an untruthful one. They turned up the heat on vulnerable Democratic senators to focus on the “facts” rather than “emotions” of the situation as they decide how to vote; they also reminded them of pro-Kavanaugh polls that could influence their decision. And, in the form of none other than presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, who once said Ford deserved to be heard, Democrats were warned to avoid being “complicit” in a plan to “destroy” the nominee.
In the course of six days — an eternity in the Trump era — the commander in chief slowly but steadily shifted from the earlier more presidential message that Ford deserved to be heard and was both “credible” and “compelling” during her emotional testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The often-bombastic Trump even called her a “fine woman.”
Then the polling data began to stream in from districts and states that will determine which party controls the House and Senate next year — and, by definition — the fate of Trump’s domestic agenda. That means November’s midterms will determine whether his U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement gets approved, what a potential infrastructure package includes, what kind of federal judges he can put on benches from coast to coast, and much more.
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And those polls showed, in some of the races in places that matter most, Trump had a green light to tee off on the accuser and defend the accused even more fervently. He did so at a campaign rally in front of thousands of supporters Tuesday night in north Mississippi, mocking Ford and painting her, like his aides did the next day, as unreliable and possibly untruthful.
“How did you get home? I don’t remember. How’d 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,” Trump said, flailing his arms around to mock her as he has some of his political foes and journalists during similar events in the past.
And that came after the president warned as he left the White House earlier in the day that the allegations threatening to wreck the nomination reflect a “very scary” situation for young men, when one accusation can ruin an otherwise “exemplary life.” In a sign his kid-gloves treatment of Ford was over, Trump told reporters he sensed the gut-wrenching saga had become “a rallying cry for the Republicans.”
Later, during a rare briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders blasted Senate Democrats.
“This is about politics, and this is about power, pure and simple,” she said. “It’s a complete and total disgrace.” She also echoed Conway by noting Ford does not recall key details of the night in question.
Conway did not hide that polling data that showed support for Kavanaugh in competitive districts and states was circulating throughout the West Wing.
“She was used for [Democrats’] purposes. They can either be complicit in that process or they can vote for Judge Kavanaugh, which is the will of their own voters in their states,” Conway said, referring to the three Democrats who backed Trump’s first high court pick, Neil Gorsuch.
“Go look at the polls. The people in their states — which President Trump won by significant double digits — want [Kavanaugh] to be confirmed,” a fired-up Conway said, her demeanor reflectinga West Wing that has pivoted from sympathy for Ford to the more familiar grounds of counterpunching with gusto.
“If I were one of these red-state Democrats, including but not exclusively the three who voted for Justice Neil Gorsuch … I’d be very concerned that I am stuck being complicit in a process that is trying to destroy a man, that revealed the identity of a woman who wanted to remain anonymous,” Conway said, referring to Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
White House aides pointed to polls conducted after last week’s hearing that found majorities in West Virginia and North Dakota supporting the nominee.
“Heitkamp is getting killed over this,” said Evan Siegfried, a GOP strategist. “Manchin, too. They are being pushed from the left and from the right.”
“In statewide races, this can be an issue,” he said. “It certainly will rally the base. But the questions are: How big is the base, and what is the attrition rate — especially college-educated suburban white women? Big majorities of them believe Ford. This issues resonates.”
But the new White House strategy comes with risks for Republicans, especially if Kavanaugh is confirmed. That’s because “this will fire up both bases, and if he’s confirmed, the Democrats’ base is going to be livid — and that will drive up their turnout,” Siegfried said.
And it could make it easier for undecided Republican senators to oppose Kavanaugh as well.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski told reporters Wednesday the president’s comments about Ford were “wholly inappropriate and in my view, unacceptable.”
“I am taking everything into account,” the Alaska Republican said.
The briefly gracious Trump was back in a more familiar role Tuesday night in Mississippi: attack dog, warning his core supporters as they at one point loudly chanted, “We want Kavanaugh!”
“Think of your son,” he said, suggesting their male loved ones could face Kavanaugh-like accusations. “Think of your husband.”
His base instantly spoke, chanting in unison, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” — only this time they appeared to want Ford thrown in jail rather than Hillary Clinton.