Shortly after the Senate voted Saturday afternoon to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, he was sworn into his new job by Chief Justice John Roberts and retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Which made what happened Monday night sort of, well, odd.
There was Kavanaugh and his family standing aside President Donald Trump at the White House. On the other side of Trump was Kennedy, the retired justice who Kavanaugh had replaced. In the crowd were not only Kavanaugh’s new colleagues on the Court but virtually every Republican congressional luminary. (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was greeted with a standing ovation when he entered the room.) After Trump spoke – more on that in a minute – Kennedy administered the judicial oath of office to Kavanaugh, the same dance he and Kavanaugh had done 48 hours earlier. Then Kavanaugh spoke. Everyone applauded and cheered. And, scene.
If you didn’t know that Kavanaugh was already a Supreme Court Justice by Saturday night, you’d have thought that you had just witnessed him becoming one. Which is exactly how Donald Trump planned it!
One of the keys to understanding how Trump thinks and operates is to remember that he is former reality TV star. He’s never really lost that lens through which to examine the world. You create the reality you want – and then you tell people, over and over again, that this is absolutely 100% the real thing. And they’ll believe you.
So, think of what we saw over the weekend from Trump’s point of view. Sure, Kavanaugh got the 50 votes he needed from the Senate and then got sworn in by Roberts. But that was on the Saturday of a holiday weekend! Not enough people a) saw it and b) heard the last word on the whole thing from Trump and Kavanaugh. But, if you hold a “major” event on Monday night – when families are back at home (and in front of their TVs) before returning to work and school the next day, you’ve got a captive audience ready to drink in the story you want them to hear (and remember).
All of which brings us to the Monday night “swearing in” ceremony.
Trump was very keen to make sure everyone a) knew what a BIG deal it was and b) made sure to tune in.
“We have a big night,” Trump said in the run-up to the event on Monday. “I think it will be very interesting. I assume most of you will be there for the official swearing in of Judge Kavanaugh. I think it will be something very, very special. I’ve always been told it’s the biggest thing a president can do, and I can understand that. So it’ll be very special.” (Nota bene: It was not Kavanaugh’s “official” swearing in.)
And, it quickly became clear why Trump wanted as many eyeballs as possible on Monday’s night “swearing in” ceremony: He wanted to reset the narrative of Kavanaugh’s confirmation fight – for the final time. This wasn’t about credible allegations made against Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez. This was about bad people trying to destroy a man for his willingness to step forward and serve the country.
Here’s the key bit of what Trump had to say about all that:
“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.
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.
“Our country, a man or woman must always be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty. (Applause.) And with that, I must state that you, sir, under historic scrutiny, were proven innocent. Thank you. You were. Thank you very much.”
Except, well, he wasn’t.
Kavanaugh wasn’t “proven innocent” during the past few weeks. First off, the Senate confirmation process is not a trial. (It’s more like a job interview.) There was never any attempt to prove Kavanaugh guilty or innocent. The only thing at issue was whether a very small group of senators believed that the allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate sexual conduct were disqualifying (or not) for someone seeking a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court. Even the supplemental five-day FBI investigation – occasioned by concerns about the allegations from Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake (R) among others – was not aimed at proving Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence. It was simply a fact-gathering operation, with no conclusions asked for or offered.
To be clear: None of those facts make Kavanaugh guilty (or innocent). All we know is that these women made allegations against Kavanaugh, he denied them, a brief FBI investigation turned up a lack of corroborating evidence and 50 of the 51 GOP senators felt good enough about all that to decide Kavanaugh deserved to be on the Supreme Court. That’s it.
But, remember: Trump’s lessons of reality TV hold here. You stage an event. You tell people what happened and what it means (even if those conclusions don’t comport with the facts). Then you just keep repeating it. (Over the weekend, Trump had already trotted out his preferred set of facts on Kavanaugh. He called the allegations again the judge a “hoax,” adding: “a man who did nothing wrong.”)
The Kavanaugh speech that followed Trump’s was just a variation on that theme. Kavanaugh, as he did with the Wall Street Journal op-ed on the eve of his confirmation vote last week, sought to knock the memory of his angry and confrontational testimony from the public – touting his willingness to be a team player and his commitment to serving as an unbiased referee on the Court. (That pitch was somewhat belied by his effusive thanks to Trump; “I am grateful for your steadfast, unwavering support throughout this process,” Kavanaugh told Trump at one point.)
This is all classic Trump. He uses his understanding of how the public consumes information (passively, and usually through TV) to reframe and/or rewrite history (recent and past) in ways that better suit him and his political goals. We’ll find out in 28 days how the public reacts to that approach.