President Donald Trump and his aides were ebullient Thursday as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh defiantly rejected charges of sexual misconduct — a mood that reflected some relief after Trump officials conceded that his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, offered a compelling performance in the first half of the day.
Trump and senior officials were impressed by Kavanaugh’s combative defense before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which the Trump nominee, alternating between fury and tears, called several misconduct charges against him a “calculated and orchestrated political hit” and “national disgrace” that had devastated his life and family.
Minutes after the committee adjourned Thursday evening, Trump tweeted that his nominee “showed America exactly why I nominated him.”
“His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting,” Trump wrote. “Democrats’ search and destroy strategy is disgraceful and this process has been a total sham and effort to delay, obstruct, and resist. The Senate must vote!”
That capped something of a roller-coaster day for a White House that had watched in the morning as Ford gave a powerful and disturbing account of what she said was a sexual assault by Kavanaugh when the two were high school students at a party in the 1980s.
“She seems sincere, kind, thoughtful and credible,” a former Trump White House official said. “Hard to suggest she is politically motivated.”
Trump, who watched the hearing aboard Air Force One on his flight back to Washington from New York City early in the day, refrained from tweeting until the day’s proceedings had ended shortly before 7:00 p.m. Some of his aides fretted early in the day as Trump watched CNN and Fox News commentary suggesting that Ford’s testimony — and what officials called a disappointing performance by a female prosecutor hired by Judiciary Committee Republicans to question her — might tip the balance against Kavanaugh’s troubled nomination.
Kavanaugh said he did not share his fiery opening remarks with anyone except a law clerk, and a White House official said his defiant tone when he initially addressed the committee after lunch caught many in the building by surprise.
But Trump was elated when Kavanaugh, whom he previously complained was not defending himself with enough force, lashed out at Democrats and the media for what Kavanaugh called casual character assassination.
One senior White House official said Kavanaugh seemed to have tapped into a key element of Trump’s own personal style: hit back hard and without apology.
“What do you like to drink, Senator?” Kavanaugh angrily asked one questioner, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
“I think he’s studied the way people around Donald Trump have been treated and he figured out a way to prevail,” said the official. The official confirmed that Trump had watched and relished Kavanaugh’s combative opening statement, which the official called “superb.”
Some of Kavanaugh’s rhetoric also echoed comments of the president at a news conference the day earlier, in which Trump lambasted Democrats for allegedly manufacturing false allegations in what Trump called a “con job.” Both Trump and Kavanaugh also suggested that men accused of sexual misconduct had lost the presumption of innocence, and that higher principles of due process and public service were at stake.
The senior White House official added that Kavanaugh’s approach also echoed the defiant response of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who survived public charges of sexual harassment that played out during his nationally televised 1991 confirmation hearings.
It remained unclear by evening whether Kavanaugh’s nomination would survive an astonishing day that covered everything from alleged rape to drinking games, the geography of Bethesda, Maryland, and crass high school yearbook jokes. But the day’s end, the mood in the White House was considerably brighter than it had been earlier, when some officials cringed at the role of Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, who led the GOP side’s questioning of Ford.
“That’s a disaster,” said one administration official. The official argued that Republican lawmakers had erred by caving to the pressures of identity politics and hiring a woman to quiz Ford to avoid having an all-white male lineup of Republicans question her.
Trump allies also recognized the bad optics of a prosecutor seeming to interrogate a victim who even some committee Republicans later acknowledged had come across as sympathetic. Mitchell approached Ford with a patient tone, but seemed to be searching for holes in Ford’s story as she asked about her air travel — Ford has said the alleged assault left her claustrophobic and uncomfortable in airplanes — and who paid for and advised her to take a polygraph test.
Trump allies who want to see Kavanaugh confirmed also were concerned that Mitchell failed to poke any substantial holes in Ford’s account or character that would make her story less believable. During her questioning, Mitchell herself acknowledged that the day’s format — in which she was able to question Ford in five-minute intervals — was not an ideal way to assess an alleged victim’s story.
But not all White House aides and officials were so unhappy about Ford’s testimony in the first half of the day. One White House official and another person close to the confirmation process noted that, despite emotional responses on TV and via social media to the day’s hearing, the key audience is a limited number of Republican senators. They include Jeff Flake, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. Those senators have expressed a desire for a no-drama, fair hearing, and the sources said they felt Mitchell was delivering that.
The two sources also noted that the hearing had failed to produce any new facts that might incriminate Kavanaugh. And midway through the 53-year-old judge’s testimony, he had made no obvious stumbles or admissions of wrongdoing.
Trump aides were “particularly impressed,” said one of the White House officials, when Kavanaugh told senators that his 10-year-old daughter had recently said at bedtime that she and her sister should pray for Ford.
And after Sen. Lindsey Graham launched a dramatic tirade against committee Democrats who he said “want … to destroy this guy’s life,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders cheered him on via Twitter. White House aides said they felt Graham had articulated their own anger over the personal charges against Kavanaugh, including Graham’s charge, delivered at a near-shout, that “What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open, and hope you win in 2020.”
At least one conservative legal activist distributed talking points early in the day defending Mitchell and noting Ford conceded to her that she must have been given a ride to and from the party where she says Kavanaugh assaulted her but could not remember who might have done so. “Whoever drove [Ford] home doesn’t exist,” the activist argued. The talking points also noted that a polygraph test Ford took and passed could be invalid because it was administered around the time of her grandmother’s funeral. The talking points also noted that Mitchell had managed to prove that “there was no witness to support what she’s alleging happened.”
At the day’s outset, Republicans expressed resignation that Kavanaugh had mishandled the situation from the beginning, by trying to portray himself as a choir boy instead of admitting that he drank heavily in high school, college and law school, as multiple classmates and yearbook entries have shown. A better strategy, White House officials conceded, would have been to admit he didn’t remember the assault described by Ford, but that he believed her story and issue her an apology.
White House officials said they saw his decision to sit for an interview with Fox News on Monday as a mistake. And that a better way to have handled the accusations would have been as Trump did after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in October 2016: a quick apology and then a forceful forging ahead.
“He feels for Brett, the person,” one person familiar with Trump’s thinking said early in the day, noting that Trump sees it as Kavanaugh’s job to defend his own name.
“When he’s accused, he punches back,” the person said.
By the day’s end, Kavanaugh had done the same — winning the president’s support, even if his nomination remained in the balance.