Midterm Time Capsule, 47 Days to Go: Derangement Comes to the Kavanaugh Fight

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Way back in Trump Time Capsule #4, when Donald Trump was about to clinch the Republican presidential nomination, I mentioned Trump’s long-standing weakness for conspiracy theories. These ranged from his lunatic suggestion that the father of (then-rival, now supplicant) Ted Cruz had been involved in the JFK assassination, to his “a lot of people are saying ...” suspicion-mongering about the death of Vince Foster, who committed suicide while serving as White House counsel during the Bill Clinton years.

Context point #1: “A lot of people are saying” is Trump’s trademark way of floating usually false information, as in “A lot of people are questioning [Obama’s] birth certificate.”

Context point #2: When Brett Kavanaugh, now Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, was an aide to special prosecutor Kenneth Starr in his investigation of Bill Clinton, he personally led efforts to unveil the “real” story of Foster’s death. The historian Sean Wilentz said more about this effort in the New York Times, here.

On Thursday, the modern equivalent of the “Cruz’s dad did it” theory, or the “real” story of Vince Foster, entered the midterm politics of 2018. It did so in the form of a deranged-seeming several-dozen-elements-long Twitter storm by a very prominent conservative figure, who set himself the task of figuring out who “really” waged a sexual attack many years ago on Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who says that the teenaged Brett Kavanaugh did so.

The tweet-storm came from a man named Edward Whelan, and here’s why it merits notice today:

  • From the Tweet storm.
    Why this was deranged-seeming. I don’t know how long this Twitter stream will survive, before cooler heads delete it. (Six hours after its publication, it’s still visible, starting here. I’m sure I’m not the only person to have made screen-captures of the successive messages, for when the original disappears.) But it resembles the most fevered scenes of A Beautiful Mind in arraying “evidence” to show that Brett Kavanaugh could not have been at the notorious high school party—and that another person, whom Whelan specifically names, would have been the real attempted-rapist.
    Maps to show where the various high-schoolers involved in the case lived; architectural drawings of what Whelan believes must have been the scene of the attempted crime; Zillow-based photos of the interior of this house; high school yearbook photos and current shots likening the appearance of Kavanaugh and the “real” malefactor; a range of other crackpot forensic evidence—this and more  is what the messages painstakingly laid out. The sequence ended with a Pontius Pilate-style disclaimer that maybe the non-Kavanaugh person was not really guilty, but the preceding messages said: Stop blaming the future Supreme Court justice! Focus on this other guy. (Christine Ford herself quickly replied, according to the Washington Post: “I knew them both … There is zero chance that I would confuse them.”)
  • Why this mattered for the Republican establishment. The author, Edward Whelan, is very far from a fringe figure. As Josh Marshall explains here, in a post written in a tone of shock, and with the headline “This Is Nuts”:

    “I’m really not sure quite how to capture what just happened. But a major, major player in the conservative/Federalist Society legal establishment in DC just posted a lengthy Twitter thread in which he accuses another alum of Kavanaugh’s high school of assaulting Professor Blasey Ford.”

    To similar effect, Brian Beutler, of Crooked Media, wrote:
    “To be clear, Ed Whelan is the conservative movement's go-to guy for judicial fights—to run down Democratic nominees and defend Republican ones. The claim that Republican officialdom had no advanced knowledge of his stunt tonight, which he'd previewed for days, is a joke.”

    Whelan is the director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center; a one-time Supreme Court clerk for Antonin Scalia;  reportedly a friend of Kavanaugh’s; and overall a significant figure within the conservative establishment. None of the members of that establishment, by the way, stepped up this evening to defend Whelan’s version of events. Which leads to…
  • Why this might matter for Brett Kavanaugh. As many commentators pointed out this evening, a natural question for (Democratic) senators to ask, when Kavanaugh comes back before them, is: Did you know about any of this?  The Naval War College professor Tom Nichols put it this way:
Via Twitter

One more note for the day: Donald Trump gave one of his patented rally speeches this evening in Las Vegas. As best I can tell from press reports (including the brilliant real-time lie-reporting from Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star), Trump did not mention that less than one year ago the deadliest gun massacre in American history took place in that city.

47 days to go.