Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his allies in Congress and the Trump White House concluded last week that time was no longer on their side.
And so, as new allegations against the Supreme Court nominee surfaced alongside unconfirmed rumors, they decided to mount a counteroffensive: demanding solidarity within the ranks and making an aggressive public relations push in Kavanaugh’s defense.
The most overt step came Monday as Kavanaugh and his wife sat down for an interview with Fox News host Martha MacCallum—an almost unheard of foray into the public eye for a Supreme Court nominee.
“The longtime custom has been that Supreme Court nominees are rarely seen and never heard outside of confirmation hearings and closed-door courtesy visits,” said Gregg Nunziata, a former top Republican aide on the Senate Judiciary Committee who helped shepherd President George W. Bush’s nominees through confirmation battles. “Judge Kavanaugh's decision to speak out may constitute a significant turning point for this nomination, and potentially future ones.”
By choosing to go public, Kavanaugh added another layer of drama to a Supreme Court confirmation fight already defined by its intense political undertones. But the White House felt it had no other choice than to escalate even further.
A White House official said that Trump aides had presented Kavanaugh’s team with several media options, which included granting the joint interview to other networks and interviewers. Ultimately, both parties agreed on MacCallum’s show.
It was a move that left some in Kavanaugh’s inner circle feeling queasy. According to a Fox News staffer, multiple people on Kavanaugh’s team were uneasy about booking the judge on the program, viewing the media play as risky due to its unpredictability. The staffer told The Daily Beast that it was the White House that reached out to the network to set up the interview, and that the outreach did not come from Kavanaugh’s own team.
Ultimately, several Kavanaugh allies said they were pleased with how the interview went and relieved to no longer find themselves on the defensive. But there were bumpy moments too, including when Kavanaugh said he was a virgin during his high school days and remained one “many years thereafter.”
But aggressive pushback may be the only remaining option for Kavanaugh and the White House, as he faces multiple decades-old allegations of sexual assault and they deal with an angry and uneasy base of supporters.
Robert Jeffress, a Dallas megachurch pastor and Trump ally, emphasized on Monday that “evangelicals see this this whole political smear on Judge Kavanaugh as unfair.” But he left the door wide open to abandoning Kavanaugh if the situation became too politically toxic. “Whether that justice’s name is Kavanaugh or [Amy] Barrett is really a secondary concern,” Jeffress added.
Even conservative activists firmly in Kavanaugh’s camp say the odds of his confirmation have never looked worse. Ed Rollins, who leads the pro-Trump group Great America PAC, pegged the chances of confirmation at “fifty-fifty” in an interview on Monday afternoon.
“My sense is you reach a point where, how do you prove your innocence?” Rollins said. He described Democrats’ opposition to Kavanaugh as something resembling a political campaign. “Democrats now smell blood, they’re going to go full bore,” he said, but “as long as he fights on I’ll support him, and the president will support him.”
Behind the scenes, GOP aides said that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was encouraging colleagues that there will be a vote on Kavanaugh and he will have the support to ultimately be confirmed. But it wasn’t entirely clear to everyone if he was bluffing in an effort to discourage potential defectors from seeing the nomination as imperiled and announcing their own reservations.
“[Kavanaugh] is only viable until [Sens] Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowksi break,” said one top GOP lobbyist. “So far, they haven’t. But when they break it is over. It has nothing do with his fortitude. It's theirs.”
Among Republicans, there was also fear that if Trump himself were to say anything that fell remotely short of a full endorsement of Kavanaugh, GOP lawmakers would start abandoning the nominee too. For now, the White House has offered no such signs of wavering.
On a Monday conference call with surrogates and high-profile Trump supporters, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, opened her remarks by stressing that the “president and this White House continue to stand strongly behind Judge Kavanaugh,” according to a person on the call.
The source said that Conway mounted a lengthy, detailed defense of Trump’s second Supreme Court pick. She also said that the White House would continue blasting out talking points, and also discussed what she considered holes and alleged Democratic “smears” against Kavanaugh in a New Yorker story, in which a classmate of Kavanaugh’s from Yale claimed he had put his genitals in her face against her will.
A staffer from McConnell’s office was heard on the line assuring participants, “Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed. We are plowing forward with this confirmation,” per two sources.
Trump himself was not on the line. But according to those who have spoken to him this week, he has only dug in further as the allegations against his Supreme Court nominee have piled up. Before The New Yorker published its story, the president had been briefed by White House advisers of its content. A source familiar with his response said that Trump said he did not believe it. He very quickly reaffirmed his support for Kavanaugh and echoed his past remarks about there being a Democratic “conspiracy” to tar and sink the judge.
The president himself has faced numerous allegations of sexual assault and harassment.
“Brett Kavanaugh and his wife, Ashley, will be interviewed tonight at 7pmE on @marthamaccallum @FoxNews,” Trump tweeted shortly before the segment aired. “This is an outstanding family who must be treated fairly!”