The Memo: Kavanaugh drama reaches fever pitch

The Memo: Kavanaugh drama reaches fever pitch
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The political world faces the most dramatic day in months Thursday as the controversy over Brett Kavanaugh takes center stage on Capitol Hill. 

Kavanaugh, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed MORE’s second nominee to the Supreme Court, now faces three separate allegations of sexual misconduct. The most recent emerged on Wednesday from Julie Swetnick, who alleges the judge was present when she was gang raped in the early 1980s.

Trump late Wednesday afternoon delivered a characteristically combative performance at a news conference in New York. Although he left the door ajar to abandoning Kavanaugh if the allegations against him were proven true, the thrust of his remarks left no doubt that he viewed that outcome as unlikely.

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Trump referred to the allegations against Kavanaugh as “a big fat con job” and said that behind closed doors, Democrats would be “laughing” at the political trick they had pulled off.

Without attacking the specific women accusing Kavanaugh, he contended that he himself has faced false accusations. He also derided Swetnick’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti, as a “low life.”

Avenatti also represents adult-film actress Stormy Daniels in her case against Trump, which relates to an alleged consensual affair in 2006 and a subsequent nondisclosure agreement. Avenatti, one of Trump’s most aggressive critics, has himself floated the possibility of a presidential run as a Democrat in 2020.

Some Republicans contend that Avenatti’s involvement helps their case that people with a partisan agenda are trying to take Kavanaugh down. But they also betray a degree of nervousness.

One former White House official noted that the outcome of the nomination battle was inherently almost impossible to predict.

“When all is said and done, this isn’t going to be decided by conservative or liberal activists. It’s going to be decided by Republican senators,” this source said.

Another Republican strategist with close ties to the White House said, “Unless you see a [Susan] Collins or [Lisa] Murkowski come forward and say we need to pause, this is going forward.”

Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, and fellow Republican Murkowski, who represents Alaska in the upper chamber, could hold Kavanaugh’s fate in their hands, given the fact that the GOP holds a thin 51-49 majority in the Senate. If they were to vote against him, he could be doomed.

Democrats, meanwhile, are emphatic that there should be, at a minimum, a pause in the confirmation process to let the allegations against Kavanaugh be evaluated. 

Some 2020 presidential prospects have gone further. Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate New poll finds Sanders surging to within 7 points of Biden in South Carolina MORE (D-Calif.) on Wednesday called for Kavanaugh’s nomination to be withdrawn on the basis that “there are three women willing to testify under oath about credible allegations.” 

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate Booker cancels NH activities, campaign says he has the flu Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Wisconsin: poll MORE (D-N.J.) made a similar call, asserting that “a Supreme Court nomination is not worth more than the lives of survivors.”

Harris and Booker are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and can be expected to question Kavanaugh aggressively on Thursday.

Republicans have brought in Rachel Mitchell, an Arizona prosecutor with significant experience in sex-crime cases, to question Christine Blasey Ford, the first Kavanaugh accuser to go public. 

Ford alleges that Kavanaugh held her down on a bed, groped her and put his hand over her mouth to silence her during a house party in Maryland in 1982, when both were high school students. Kavanaugh denies the allegations.

The involvement of Mitchell at the behest of the GOP senators on the committee — all men — is widely seen as part of an effort to avoid politically troublesome dynamics in having a group of older men question a woman who says she was sexually assaulted.

But GOP strategist Liz Mair objected to that narrative and, more broadly, suggested that it may not be enough to save Republicans from political damage in the Kavanaugh affair overall.

“The party is already in trouble with suburban women,” she said. “I just have a sneaking suspicion that the Republicans will find a way to mess this up. We are already in trouble with a group of voters we need to not totally hate us.”

Mair acknowledged, however, that the situation was a complicated one and that Democrats should not be complacent. They, too, could overreach during Thursday’s hearing, she said.

Democratic strategist Jess McIntosh, however, said the political perils were clearly deepest for the GOP.

“This is insanely dangerous for Republicans,” McIntosh said. “This is all playing out 40 days before the midterms. … This is untenable. Republican women don’t want Brett Kavanaugh.”

Some Republicans, however, said there were also dangers for GOP senators who might consider deserting Kavanaugh. 

Such a move would not easily be forgiven by conservative voters who believe that the accusations against Kavanaugh are a political ploy, they said. 

“If they let this eleventh-hour smear campaign succeed, the consequences will be far-reaching,” said another former White House official.

“Beyond the predictable negative impact on the November election, confirming a different nominee will be even more difficult,” the former official said. “And Democrats will be emboldened to fire off unsubstantiated claims of sexual assault at will. It will become a mainstay of their political playbook.”

The Kavanaugh matter has sidelined another dramatic moment that had been expected on Thursday.

Trump had been scheduled to meet with Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinRosenstein, Sessions discussed firing Comey in late 2016 or early 2017: FBI notes Justice Dept releases another round of summaries from Mueller probe Judge rules former WH counsel McGahn must testify under subpoena MORE, whose fate hangs in the balance after allegations in a New York Times story that he considered secretly recording the president. The president suggested that meeting could be pushed back and made some of his most conciliatory comments in the recent past regarding Rosenstein.

Trump said he would “much prefer” to keep the deputy attorney general than fire him.

Trump also said the Kavanaugh hearing would be the focus of his personal attention. 

“I’m going to be watching — believe it or not,” he said at Wednesday’s news conference.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.