Deflect. Discredit. Discombobulate.
The Republican playbook for combating the sexual misconduct allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh is becoming easier to read by the hour — with a script pulled in part from their strategy to undermine the probe into Russian election meddling.
As the FBI enters a fifth day of renewed inquiries into Kavanaugh and the charges made by Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez, GOP leaders in Washington, along with President Donald Trump via Twitter and in a mocking speech Tuesday night in Mississippi, have been working on at least three or four parallel tracks to clear the way for a successful confirmation vote.
Flip the script on victims
Most Republicans have sought to toe a narrow line, saying they believe Ford when she describes her alleged assault, but that there isn’t enough evidence to make it clear that Kavanaugh was the one who did it.
Those less willing to let his confirmation hang on that slender reed have instead suggested Ford (and Ramirez and Julie Swetnick) are pawns in a conspiracy to upend Kavanaugh’s life and career.
“The Democrats are engaged in a campaign of delay and character assassination against Judge Kavanaugh,” Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a reliable Republican attack dog, tweeted the morning after the Ramirez accusation was published. “It’s time to vote (to confirm) this week.”
Trump, who has — even by his standard — been largely careful in discussing the Ford case, let the mask fall on Tuesday night during a rally in Southaven, Mississippi. Accused himself by at least 15 women of a range of misconduct, Trump mocked Ford as supporters in the crowd whooped and cheered.
“I had one beer. Well, do you think it was — nope, it was one beer,” Trump said, mimicking Ford’s telling. “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.”
Earlier in the day, he effectively attempted to pit young men (and so, their families) against accusers, saying it “is a very scary time” for them.
“You could be somebody that was perfect your entire life,” Trump told reporters, “and somebody could accuse you of something.”
Attack the process
On Capitol Hill, Republicans have tried to distract from the central question by hammering Democrats over the process that led to the current impasse. Long stretches of last week’s hearing with Ford and Kavanaugh were gobbled up by speechifying senators agonizing over the means by which Ford’s claims went public.
Even the female sex crimes prosecutor drafted in by the all-male GOP side of the Judiciary Committee spent a chunk of her time questioning Ford trying to tease out how exactly the information from the professor’s confidential letter got from the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking member, into the public sphere. (Feinstein has denied leaking it, and Ryan Grim of the The Intercept, which first reported on it, said the source was not from her office.)
Days earlier, before the hearing, it was Trump in a tweet suggesting that Democrats’ handling of the letter somehow delegitimized Ford’s claims.
“Senator Feinstein and the Democrats held the letter for months, only to release it with a bang after the hearings were OVER – done very purposefully to Obstruct & Resist & Delay,” the President said. “Let (Ford) testify, or not, and TAKE THE VOTE!”
On Sunday morning, less than 48 hours after the full vote was delayed, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham took the next logical step — and perhaps the one most reminiscent of how the House GOP has tied up its own Russia probe — by threatening to launch a kind of counter-probe into everything from how Ford found her lawyers to who made public another anonymous letter to a Republican senator alleging more recent misconduct by Kavanaugh.
After the new, ongoing background check is concluded, Graham told ABC News, “We’re going to do a wholesale full-scale investigation of what I think was a despicable process to deter it from happening again.”
Talk about the Clintons
A couple of days before the hearing, Trump on Twitter set the tone for Republicans and, it turned out, Kavanaugh himself.
“The Democrats are playing a high level CON GAME in their vicious effort to destroy a fine person,” he tweeted. “It is called the politics of destruction. Behind the scene the Dems are laughing. Pray for Brett Kavanaugh and his family!”
During his opening statement, Kavanaugh picked up the thread and began to rail at Democrats, suggesting he was the victim of a wide-ranging conspiracy — one that implicated shadowy leftist political operatives with vendettas against Trump and, naturally, the unseen hand(s) of Hillary and/or Bill Clinton.
“This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election,” Kavanaugh blared to the committee. “Fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record. Revenge on behalf of the Clintons. And millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.”
Kavanaugh didn’t mention a “deep state” or accuse former President Barack Obama of “tapping my phones,” but the implication was plain to hear: this isn’t about the allegations, the fight here is a tribal one and it’s time for everyone — from US senators to voters watching from the sidelines — to pick their team.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber, added a dose of historical drama too, lamenting the “cruelty of the process toward the people involved” and saying he could not recall a “more embarrassing scandal for the United States Senate since the McCarthy hearings.”
Beat the press
In a similar vein to the Russia probe, Republicans have also attempted repeatedly to use the news media as a cudgel against any unflattering or potentially damaging new revelations. Their standards, though, for which institutions can be trusted and those that should be dismissed or ignored shifts with the wind.
When The New Yorker first broke news that a second accuser had gone on the record to say Kavanaugh exposed himself to her during college, the judge’s GOP defenders sought to discredit the story by pointing out that the New York Times(!) had not, despite having some of the same information, gone to press with the same accusation.
But the Times quickly — both in a comment by its top editor and in the flow of a subsequent story about Ramirez and Kavanaugh’s Yale years — rejected any suggestion it held back on publishing for any reason other than, as it wrote, “unlike the New Yorker, (the paper) was not able to obtain an interview with Ms. Ramirez.”
And yet, there was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, last Thursday, seeking to further muddy the waters by effectively conflating two separate charges against Kavanaugh and ignoring the Times’ explanation of its actions.
“I think it’s important,” he said, “to note that two of those sets of allegations had so little corroboration that even the New York Times, which is no conservative outlet, refused to report on them because they could find no basis for them.”
Again, the Times did report on the Ramirez allegations. In a story published on September 25, two days before the hearing, it featured a former college roommate of Kavanaugh saying he believed Ramirez’s account and supported her decision to make it public. The story also goes on at length describing the aggressive drinking culture at the school, one in which “a dozen people who knew (Kavanaugh) well or socialized with him” said he had been a stumbling participant.
What’s the point again?
If this all seems outlandish, bewildering or just painfully complicated, well, that’s the point.
For the same reasons the GOP-led Russia investigation in the House has focused as much on alleged pro-Clinton bias in the FBI as what Moscow might have done and what role, if any, Trump and his team played in its work to sway the 2016 election, the effort to “plow right through” and confirm Kavanaugh seems to be perpetually in search of something to discuss that doesn’t involve the plain language of Ford’s testimony.
Now, as what’s expected to be the final step in the process — the new FBI probe — nears a conclusion, the fever on Capitol Hill and in the White House is peaking. Trump over the last 48 hours has veered between pledges to allow investigators to do their jobs and remarks, at a Monday news conference, suggesting (without a sliver of evidence) that he’s seen an unnamed Democratic senator “in very bad situations.”
That, of course, has nothing to do with Kavanaugh, but it planted the seeds of an alternate narrative — something for supporters to wield in the face any doubts, old or new, over the nominee’s past behavior and suitability to the court.
Original? Nope. Effective? Once again, we’ll have to wait and see.