For Donald Trump’s White House, Brett Kavanaugh is increasingly irrelevant to the politics of his own Supreme Court nomination. Instead, those close to the president view the next few days as a virtual X-ray on the backbone of their party and a litmus test for the future of Trump’s presidency.
Those are the stakes that Team Trump has embraced as it and Kavanaugh respond to allegations that the federal appeals court judge sexually assaulted a fellow high-school student—allegations he strenuously denies.
There has been no talk within the ranks about pulling the nomination and going with an equally conservative—if not less controversial—pick, even if it would remove a major complication from the Republican agenda just 50 days before the midterm elections. To do so, aides and operatives insist, would be a disaster of much greater magnitude: inviting Democrats to launch more aggressive challenges to future judicial nominees and depressing the very base of conservative voters needed in November.
“A withdrawal would be disastrous for Trump,” one pro-Trump political operative who worked on the president’s 2016 campaign said. “You take away the whole ‘We’re sick of winning’ message. That’s a huge, marquee, top-line loss.”
Rarely have Supreme Court fights been defined in such crassly political terms. But such is the landscape following the public emergence Sunday of a woman who accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her more than 30 years ago. The allegation, from Prof. Christine Blasey Ford, has roiled the confirmation proceedings, with both Ford and Kavanaugh now set to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee this coming Monday.
Several Republican senators have voiced concern about rushing a vote, and even Trump himself has at least indicated that he wanted a full accounting of the allegations against Kavanaugh. “If it takes a little delay, it’ll take a little delay,” he said. But at the same White House event, the president called the prospect of withdrawing Kavanaugh’s nomination “a ridiculous question.”
Trump allies say they were taken aback by the president’s muted tone. “I don’t think the president ever gets scared, but it shows us the seriousness of what we’re heading into this week,” the 2016 Trump campaign veteran said. “I thought for sure he’d come out swinging. The fact that he didn’t means he knows how serious this is. We very rarely hear that tone from him.”
And within Trump’s West Wing, there was a strong sense that backing down would be a major humiliation for Trump, who has made two distinct promises to conservative voters: that he revels engaging in political fights and that he will stack the judiciary with nominees they love. One senior administration official said that pulling Kavanaugh at this moment would be akin to Team Trump signing its own political “death warrant.”
“Here is the calculus,” said a former top administration official. “The Supreme Court was one of the top reasons why many Republicans supported President Trump during the 2016 campaign. If they were to pull Kavanaugh, there is a real chance of depressing the base.”
Among Kavanaugh’s boosters, it is taken as an article of faith that he is either innocent of the charges or that they were so long ago that they no longer matter. There is virtually no appetite for considering the possibility that the opposite may be true. Instead, the president, as one official noted, has chosen to go “full steam ahead” on the nomination and allies have pledged to threaten those Republican lawmakers who they felt were going wobbly.
“There will be huge consequences for any Republican who backs away,” and who gives the Democrats “any lane to scuttle this nomination,” warned Matt Schlapp, a prominent Trump surrogate, Kavanaugh friend, and chair of the American Conservative Union. “We will score the vote on Judge Kavanaugh... and we will hold them accountable.”
Like other Republicans, Team Trump said it had been caught blindsided by Ford’s allegations. Two senior Trump administration officials told The Daily Beast that the episode had not been flagged during the entire vetting process and that Kavanaugh himself did not bring anything like it up during interviews.
On Monday, White House officials began calling close allies and supporters to take their temperature on the Post bombshell and to confirm that they too would still support the Kavanaugh nomination. Robert Jeffress, a Dallas megachurch pastor and Trump ally, told The Daily Beast on Monday afternoon that the White House had reached out to him “to ask what I was hearing and feeling about this, and what other evangelical leaders” were saying.
The pastor said the White House “sounded very determined at that moment that they were moving forward,” even if he himself seemed less certain about the politics of the Kavanaugh fight. “I said ultimately they needed to determine where [Senators Susan] Collins and [Lisa] Murkowski were on this,” he said of the two main moderate swing votes. “There is no reason to expend political capital on someone who is unconfirmable.”
But elsewhere in the party, top aides and officials seemed to be almost spoiling for a fight, fearful that the party had already conceded too much to Democrats in letting a late revelation that the nominee adamantly denied disrupt proceedings. Though Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the ranking member on the committee, had sat on Ford’s allegations for months at Ford’s request, there was a sense among conservatives that the entire episode had been orchestrated to produce a dramatic, 11th-hour disruption of the confirmation fight.
“It would be the ultimate miscarriage of justice if [Republicans] allowed a senator who sat on a damaging charge, and did not send that charge to the FBI, and did not share it with the committee—it would be the ultimate miscarriage to allow that senator to hijack that process,” said Schlapp.
Should Kavanaugh drop his bid, Trump would appoint someone new to fill the seat and the subsequent confirmation hearings would likely extend into the lame-duck session between the election and when the next Congress takes over in January 2019. Republicans would still enjoy their Senate majority then, making it likely that Trump will get a nominee on the court, one way or another. But, at least publicly, no Republican said they wanted to take the less confrontational road, in part because they insisted it would not end up being less confrontational.
“There is the firm belief that the Democrats have decided that they are going to do absolutely anything and everything they can to delay, delay, delay, delay, and see what happens with the election,” said John Brabender, a longtime top party strategist. “I don’t think the White House or the Republicans believe there is anybody with an R next to their name that could get easily confirmed unless it is a Republican who happens to believe anything that left-leaning Democrats believe.”