A woman’s allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in their youth has upended the judge’s confirmation process — and it threatens to have deep political implications for President TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN’s Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading ‘idiotic’ conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be ‘phenomenal’ president MORE and his party.
Trump and the GOP have struggled with female voters, and any missteps or perceived insensitivity during the current firestorm could deepen those problems. The midterm elections are just seven weeks away.
Trump has struck an uncharacteristically circumspect tone in response to the controversy so far.
In brief remarks to reporters on Monday afternoon, he left the door open to a delay in Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
“I wish the Democrats could have done this a lot sooner, because they had this information for many months…But with all of that being said, we want to go through the process,” Trump said. He added, “if it takes a little delay, it’ll take a little delay.”
Within hours, it was announced that Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, would testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday. It promises to be the most dramatic day on Capitol Hill since former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyComey tweets: ‘We always emerge stronger from hard times’ Trump to declassify controversial text messages, documents related to Russia probe Lisa Page bombshell: FBI couldn’t prove Trump-Russia collusion before Mueller appointment MORE testified about his interactions with Trump last year.
The hearing also ensures the postponement of a committee vote on the judge, which had been scheduled for Thursday.
Trump appeared to be taking a cue in his more measured tone from key aide Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayConway: Kavanaugh accuser ‘should not be ignored’ George Conway rips Trump over tweet about Obama’s ’57 states’ gaffe Trump Jr.: Justice Department should investigate author of anonymous op-ed MORE, who — in a brief exchange in the White House driveway Monday — told Kristen Welker of NBC News that it was important Ford “should not be insulted. She should not be ignored.”
Prior to working with Trump, Conway was a pollster who had particular expertise in advising Republican candidates how to avoid alienating female voters.
Her current boss and his party may struggle to do that in the midterms.
A number of polls have shown Trump’s approval dipping more sharply with women than with men, and party insiders had already been worried about facing a reckoning with moderate, suburban women on Election Day.
A CNN poll released last week indicated that the president’s job performance won the approval of 42 percent of men but only 29 percent of women. A Quinnipiac University poll, also released last week, showed women favoring Democrats in the midterms by a 20-point margin (55-35 percent) while men did so only by a six-point margin (48-42 percent).
All of that was before Ford gave up her anonymity at the weekend to allege that Kavanaugh had held her down, groped her and tried to undress her at a party in the Maryland suburbs of Washington in the 1980s, when both were high school students. Ford’s attorney, Deborah Katz, has said that her client considers Kavanaugh’s actions to be tantamount to attempted rape.
Kavanaugh has emphatically denied the allegations and no witness has corroborated them. The White House has stood with him.
In a statement released through the White House on Monday morning, the judge said that the allegations were “completely false,” that he has “never done anything like what the accuser describes—to her or to anyone,” and that he was so perplexed by the allegation, which first emerged anonymously, that he did not know who the accuser was until she identified herself.
Still, even Republicans who were relieved by Trump’s modulated initial response worry about the controversy’s capacity to hurt the party politically.
“There are so many moving parts, that may make it easier for this to be handled poorly,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.
“Even if the [Senate Judiciary] committee does a good job, if the president is not on message and tweeting things that only serve to further excite a Democratic base, that could be a real problem.”
Democrats, opposed to Kavanaugh’s nomination because of his overarching conservative philosophy, are hoping that new allegations may be enough to persuade some Republicans to thwart the effort to confirm him.
“I think there are so many reasons to be against Kavanaugh, but if the Republicans’ fear about the election is the thing that ultimately drives enough of them to pull back, we’ll take it,” said Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen.
“Look, I think if Republicans confirm a sexual harasser to the bench, it will inflame women — and many men — across the country, significantly, in the election. But I hope it doesn’t come to that,” Rosen added.
The bulk of the Senate — in which the GOP holds a 51-49 majority — is expected to vote along party lines on Kavanaugh.
Attention is therefore focused on Republicans who could potentially oppose him — Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMurkowski echoes calls for Kavanaugh, accuser to testify Kavanaugh, accuser to testify publicly on Monday White House says Kavanaugh ready to testify over ‘false allegation’ MORE (Maine) and Lisa Murkowksi (Alaska) in particular — as well as three Democratic senators who are fighting for reelection this fall in states Trump won by wide margins in 2016: Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyKavanaugh becomes September surprise for midterm candidates Kavanaugh, accuser to testify publicly on Monday Kavanaugh furor intensifies as calls for new testimony grow MORE (Ind.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampKavanaugh becomes September surprise for midterm candidates Kavanaugh, accuser to testify publicly on Monday Kavanaugh furor intensifies as calls for new testimony grow MORE (N.D.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinKavanaugh becomes September surprise for midterm candidates Kavanaugh, accuser to testify publicly on Monday Kavanaugh furor intensifies as calls for new testimony grow MORE (W.Va.).
Collins told reporters on Monday that, if Kavanaugh were found to by lying about the incident described by Ford, that would be “disqualifying.”
In a statement, Murkowski noted that both Ford and Kavanaugh should get the opportunity to testify.
Manchin and Heitkamp share that view, and Donnelly had said that the Judiciary Committee vote scheduled for Thursday should be postponed — a request that has now been met.
But the controversy will also percolate through other key races.
In Arizona, for example, two female candidates — Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyKavanaugh becomes September surprise for midterm candidates McSally supports having Kavanaugh, accuser testify Poll: Sinema leads McSally by 7 points in Arizona Senate race MORE — are competing to fill the seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGrassley agrees to second Kavanaugh hearing after GOP members revolt Murkowski echoes calls for Kavanaugh, accuser to testify Kavanaugh, accuser to testify publicly on Monday MORE, a frequent Trump critic who has been lukewarm on Kavanaugh.
In Tennessee, a state traditionally safe for the GOP, Democrat Phil Bredesen is running a very competitive campaign against Republican Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnKavanaugh becomes September surprise for midterm candidates Poll: Democrat Bredesen leads GOP’s Blackburn by 5 points in Tennessee Senate race Dems gain momentum 50 days before midterms MORE. The seat is open because of the retirement of another Trump skeptic, Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerMurkowski echoes calls for Kavanaugh, accuser to testify Kavanaugh, accuser to testify publicly on Monday Kavanaugh furor intensifies as calls for new testimony grow MORE (R).
Vanderbilt University professor Bruce Oppenheimer pointed to a seeming paradox in the Volunteer State: whoever lost the battle over Kavanaugh’s nomination was more likely to get an electoral boost, he suggested.
“If Republicans go right ahead and confirm him, I think there will be a cost for that to Republicans running for the Senate, because it will activate women who will feel the charges have not been taken seriously enough,” he said.
But he added that if Kavanaugh were derailed, that might also allow Republicans to paint his Democratic critics as overly dogmatic or partisan.
For now, however, everything is in a state of flux.
The political world is bracing for Monday’s hearing — and the fierce fight that will inevitably follow.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency