President Trump reacts during a bilateral meeting with France's President Emmanuel Macron at the United Nations on Monday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Antsy and impatient, President Trump called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Saturday with an unmistakable message: Call the vote on Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and call it soon, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
Trump has been simmering with frustration over what one senior White House official dubbed the “molasses-like” pace of Kavanaugh’s confirmation in the Senate, where the president has also long blamed Republican leaders with slow-walking his border wall and other key agenda items.
Despite their public projections of unity, Trump and his aides behind the scenes see Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) as having been too accommodating to Christine Blasey Ford, the California professor who has alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when he was 17, by delaying her hearing until Thursday. The president has said that Republicans are too easily manipulated by Democrats, that he is sick of Ford’s attorneys getting their way and that he does not believe her accusations are credible, according to a Republican briefed on Trump’s private comments.
Trump told Kavanaugh in a call Monday that he remained behind him and wished him luck in an interview scheduled later in the day with Fox News, a senior White House official said.
The White House found itself grappling Monday with a second crisis as well — the uncertain job status of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe and is a frequent target of the president’s ire. Rosenstein is expected to meet Thursday with Trump, and it remains unclear whether he intends to resign, will be fired or will remain in his post.
The two hours and 10 minutes between the first report that Rosenstein had verbally offered to resign and the official White House statement that he was still on the job was a period of confusion in the West Wing — and on cable news and Twitter, pure mayhem. At one point, about an hour into the Rosenstein melee, a White House official said the communications team was still trying to finalize its official talking points — including whether Rosenstein was leaving.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at the Capitol on Monday. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
The one-two punch over Kavanaugh and Rosenstein marked the start of a potentially consequential week and again plunged the White House into tumult, with the president over 200 miles away in New York presiding over the start of the annual parade of leaders addressing the U.N. General Assembly.
The physical distance exacerbated the challenges for an administration now well accustomed to operating against a backdrop of chaos. Trump, Vice President Pence and many of their top aides were in New York on Monday, while Chief of Staff John F. Kelly remained at the White House, where he met with Rosenstein in person. The White House counsel’s office, which normally would have played a key role in Rosenstein’s potential resignation, was instead already mired in helping Kavanaugh salvage his nomination, said an administration official who like several others requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Both issues are especially personal for Trump: He sees the Russia investigation as an existential threat looming over his presidency, and, as someone who has been accused of sexual assault by over a dozen women, he is sensitive to the fear that a powerful man’s career could be ruined by a single accusation, the president’s associates have said.
Over the weekend, at two of his favorite haunts — his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J., and Trump Tower in Manhattan — the president mused about wanting to inject some new chum into the news cycle to help deflect the spotlight from Kavanaugh, according to a former official in frequent touch with the White House.
Trump’s instinct since the Ford allegations first surfaced over a week ago has been to defend his Supreme Court pick and try to muscle his nomination through. Now, with new allegations and fresh signs of uncertainty, the White House feels extraordinary pressure from Trump’s conservative base to not fold in the face of what it sees as a smear campaign from Democrats and the media.
A demonstrator opposed to nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh outside the Supreme Court on Monday. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
“They don’t want us to back down on Kavanaugh,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and an informal Trump adviser. “If we fumble on the Supreme Court, it’s the most fundamentally unifying principle we have and the most important thing to most voters. If they view that the Senate leadership is backing away, they view that the candidates will be punished in November.”
The battle for the Supreme Court intensified over the weekend. On Sunday, the New Yorker published allegations from a second woman, Deborah Ramirez, who said Kavanaugh exposed himself to her when they were both students at Yale University. And Michael Avenatti — the attorney for adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, who has alleged she had extramarital affair with Trump — said he represents a third woman who plans to come forward with damaging claims about Kavanaugh.
Ramirez’s account in the New Yorker was widely viewed inside the White House as flimsy, and the sudden emergence of Avenatti further galvanized supporters of Kavanaugh, who claimed a partisan character assault was underway and crowed it was devolving in a circuslike sideshow. Avenatti has publicly toyed with running against Trump as a Democrat in 2020.
“It’s beginning to look like this is pure, ugly American politics,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser. “If the Democrats set out on this journey to energize the Republican base, they sure have. They’re absolutely livid.”
But the White House also recognized the peril for Kavanaugh and on Monday launched a public relations offensive to save his nomination. It began with Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, appearing on morning television to push the message that Kavanaugh is innocent and should not have to bear the burden of the #MeToo reckoning.
“It is good that many female victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault are coming forward and being heard and I am happy for them, but this man doesn’t deserve to have the weight of decades of a pent-up #MeToo movement on his shoulders, and that’s what’s happening here,” Conway said in an interview with The Washington Post.
In the White House, Conway said, “there’s a surround sound of support for him.”
The president also weighed in with words of support for Kavanaugh, telling reporters at the United Nations that he supports his nominee “all the way” and that the allegations against him were “totally political.”
“There’s a chance that this could be one of the single most unfair, unjust things to happen for a candidate for anything,” Trump said.
The president has grown increasingly exasperated at what he views as unnecessary delays in Kavanaugh’s confirmation, telling senior political aides that the outcome is critical to Republican success in November’s midterm elections, according to White House officials.
In private talks, Trump has targeted McConnell and Grassley for criticism, complaining that they have not been forceful enough in speeding up the process and have been too deferential to Ford’s attorneys, according to two people familiar with Trump’s concerns. McConnell (R-Ky.) — who delivered a vigorous defense of Kavanaugh in a speech on the Senate floor Monday — has tried to explain to the president that he, too, is eager to hold a vote but that he first needs to ensure that the nomination has the majority support to pass the Senate.
In a conference call with Republican congressional aides, Trump allies and other pro-Kavanaugh surrogates later Monday morning, Conway stressed what she described as hypocrisy by the media. She said that some media figures who have been calling the allegations against Kavanaugh toxic or even fatal have protected men in their own industry — such as CBS’s Leslie Moonves and NBC’s Matt Lauer — who were accused of far more egregious behavior than Kavanaugh, according to two people familiar with the call.
But as much as Trump and his aides were trying to push Kavanaugh’s nomination through, White House officials have also been eager to try protect and cushion the president from too much public exposure, especially before Kavanaugh and his accuser testify Thursday.
“He’s standing behind Brett, but we’ve done a lot for Brett around here and he needs to defend himself,” a senior White House official said.
To that end, Kavanaugh released a strongly worded letter Monday to the Senate Judiciary Committee, vowing to fight a “last-minute character assassination” and expressing his eagerness to testify. “These are smears, pure and simple,” he wrote.
Kavanaugh and his wife, Ashley, also appeared on Fox News on Monday night to publicly share their side of the story. In a deeply personal exchange, with his wife at his side, Kavanaugh said he was a virgin throughout high school and “for many years thereafter,” and expressed resolve to fight on.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Kavanaugh said.