On a Washington day like no other, President Donald Trump found himself in an unusual spot: publicly absent from a melodrama gripping the nation. Closeted in his third-floor White House residence, he avoided opportunities to comment on the proceedings occurring two miles away on Capitol Hill.
But nearing the end of a more-than-eight-hour hearing stamped by unusually raw displays of human emotion and political drama, the President was telling aides and confidants that he believed his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had successfully acquitted himself from accusations of sexual assault and was one step closer to being installed on the highest bench.
“Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him,” he wrote on Twitter fewer than five minutes after the hearing was gaveled to a close. “His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting. Democrats’ search and destroy strategy is disgraceful and this process has been a total sham and effort to delay, obstruct, and resist.”
He offered a command to Senate Republican leaders: “The Senate must vote!”
The President had spent most of the previous week enraged, in public and private, at how the man he selected to reshape the ideological bent of the Supreme Court was being maligned. He decried Senate Republicans for not pushing for a vote on his nominee’s confirmation before the allegations emerged. He was dismayed by a timid defense offered by Kavanaugh himself during a leaden interview with Fox News.
On Thursday, Trump found himself revived by Kavanaugh’s irate and tearful denial, delivered over the course of 45 minutes as his wife wept at the edge of the camera frame. The sharply political tinge of his statement – railing against Democrats’ tactics and accusing them of executing “revenge on behalf of the Clintons” – gave Trump confidence an eventual Justice Kavanaugh would rule in his favor.
“President Trump is very pleased with Brett Kavanaugh’s righteous indignation regarding the personal destruction of his good name and his family,” a senior White House official said. “He’s confident in his choice.”
Trump’s confidence, of course, isn’t wholly relevant in the ultimate question of whether Kavanaugh is confirmed. Republican fence-sitters, namely Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have yet to say how they’ll vote after expressing concerns about the accusations that emerged over the past week.
But White House officials who appeared uncertain about a beleaguered nomination earlier in the week had regained confidence as the hearing neared its end.
“Only way to earn respect in Trumpworld is to brawl and he is brawling,” said one source close to the White House.
“Brett saved his bacon,” said another person with ties to the administration.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, assessed the day saying: “Anyone who opposes Brett Kavanaugh is basically signaling their retirement.”
Power of television
A student and practitioner of television, the President is highly attuned to the power of televised testimony and the emotional draw of a sympathetic character. Trump recognized quickly that Christine Blasey Ford’s account of being sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh would prove credible to most viewers.
And along with some White House officials, he recognized the mistake in hiring a sex crimes prosecutor to question Ford in place of Republican senators. Meant to inure the GOP members of the Judiciary Committee – all men – from accusations of insensitivity, the move instead appeared like the Republicans were putting Ford herself on trial.
Senior officials in the West Wing were openly complaining Thursday that the female prosecutor Republicans brought in to question Ford and Kavanaugh wasn’t helpful. Instead, these officials said Republicans made a mistake with Rachel Mitchell, who specializes in sex crimes, because she was unable to effectively point out their perceived holes in Ford’s account.
While the White House initially signed off on the plan, Mitchell was recruited and hired by the committee. An official involved in the process said the White House offered their own suggestions for female lawyers to conduct questioning, all of whom were rejected.
That impression wasn’t dampened when the prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, seemed to disappear when it was Kavanaugh’s turn to testify. The Republican lawmakers took over instead.
In the end, the President – like the rest of the country – was offered hours of compelling testimony from two individuals that both displayed raw and convincing emotion. And like other Americans, Trump interpreted what he saw through his own personal history, one that is pocked with accusations of misconduct and assault.
Watching a time-delayed recording of Ford’s emotional testimony aboard Air Force One on Thursday, Trump remained rapt – and largely quiet. The silence disconcerted some aides, who are used to furious outbursts instead of hushed discontent.
The general feeling inside the White House is that Ford was “very credible” and “compelling,” another official said, who added that her testimony doesn’t take away the partisan criticism for why she came forward so late in the confirmation process.
Yet it was Trump’s hand, working behind the scenes, that led to Kavanaugh firing back in loud partisan tones that have seldom, if ever, been heard by a nominee for the high court. And it was no accident that Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham soon followed suit, bellowing to Democrats in the room: “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics.”
The interview Kavanaugh and his wife gave to Fox News on Monday was intended largely to cast Kavanaugh in a “sympathetic” light and to humanize the man behind the allegations. In the immediate aftermath of the interview, some in and around the White House were attempting to tout the interview as a success in achieving that goal.
But Trump felt Kavanaugh didn’t come across as forceful enough, and the President urged him to take a more aggressive stance during his testimony. Perhaps taking that advice to heart, Kavanaugh’s tone grew increasingly tougher over the week in written statements responding to the additional claims made against him – he described them as originating from the “Twilight Zone” – and the nominee prepared to fight back harder against the women accusing him.
It was clear from the first words out of Kavanaugh’s mouth that he had shed the amiable veneer he brought to his television appearance and channeled the defiance Trump himself had shown the previous day when defending his nominee.
Republican strategists and aides expressed something approaching panic after Ford’s testimony sparked a national outpouring of empathy and support Thursday afternoon. White House aides feared the reaction among Senate Republicans could doom the nomination before Kavanaugh ever took his seat before the committee.
Kavanaugh’s emotional account of the toll the allegations had taken on his family – delivered while his wife wept in the background – quickly inspired a collective sigh of relief among his supporters.
One Trump ally noted that while the President doesn’t like men who display their feelings the way Kavanaugh did, he likes winning even more – and the nominee’s performance will boost his chances for victory.
“Even if he loses, (he) set the table that a stand-alone accusation should never suffice,” the ally said.
Still, the harshly political tone adopted by Kavanaugh and Republican senators amounted to a new territory for a judicial nominee. For Trump, Thursday’s hearing was less about the search for truth than a political battle producing winners and losers.
“If the Republicans win tomorrow, I think you’re going to get some votes from the Democrats,” he predicted during a rambling evening news conference in New York a day ahead of the hearing. “You know why? Because we all know why. Because it’s called politics.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper contributed to this report.