The White House Is Scrambling to Calm Its Supporters Over the New Kavanaugh Allegations

Republicans in Washington are committed to getting Trump’s Supreme Court nominee confirmed, fearing their voters will stay home in November if they can’t seal the deal.

Andrew Harnik / AP

On Monday morning, the White House hastily arranged a conference call with surrogates across the country to address the latest sexual-misconduct allegations levied against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. According to a source on the call, it was an unwelcome start to the day: Republicans had begun to breathe easier over the weekend, with Kavanaugh’s second hearing finally confirmed. But a New Yorker story published Sunday night prompted yet another round of doubt about Kavanaugh’s fate.

The White House was scrambling to assure its supporters that nothing had changed. The Republican line? “Plow ahead.”

That’s how a staffer for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put it, according to the source on the call. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who was also on the line, called the New Yorker story a “smear,” part of a “vast left-wing conspiracy” to take down Kavanaugh for his judicial ideology. In the story, Deborah Ramirez, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale University in the early 1980s, alleged that he had exposed himself to her at a party. The magazine was unable to independently corroborate Ramirez’s account. (The New York Times pursued the same story and was similarly unable to locate witnesses.)

Conway argued that the White House would not let the media do a “drive-by” on Kavanaugh, adding that the new standard for nominees would be to “vet them through high school.” She encouraged those on the call not to get “too rattled” by the allegations. The McConnell staffer promised the surrogates that Kavanaugh’s hearing on Thursday morning would continue as scheduled, with a full floor vote to take place either next Monday or Tuesday. A few hours after the call, McConnell himself said the vote would happen “in the near future.” Orrin Hatch, a Judiciary Committee member, confirmed to me in a statement that the hearing was still on.

The White House’s resolute stance encapsulates the broader Republican mind-set heading into Thursday, when Christine Blasey Ford will testify about the sexual-assault allegations she’s leveled against Kavanaugh, which he has denied. According to multiple sources in the House, Senate, and GOP congressional campaigns, Republicans now see their task of supporting Kavanaugh not only as principled—standing behind a man they believe is innocent—but also as political; Kavanaugh’s confirmation is a crucial metric of their chances in the midterm elections. If they don’t “plow ahead” and confirm Kavanaugh, their thinking goes, GOP voters will feel cheated, with little reason to turn out in November. “If Republicans cave to these lies,” one senior Senate GOP aide told me, “it will demoralize the base and cost them the Senate.”

Republicans’ offensive stance in the wake of Ramirez’s allegations represents a shift from last week, when Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley signaled his intention to hear Ford’s story before moving ahead with a vote. Several rounds of negotiations followed, even as White House officials decried the timing of Ford’s allegations and criticized Democrats for their “delay tactics.”

This time, the White House and Senate Republicans seem to be on the same page. Multiple Senate GOP sources told me that Ramirez’s allegations have prompted zero change in their thinking about moving ahead on Thursday. Much of the reason for that, they said, is procedural: As one top aide to a Judiciary Committee member told me, no official complaint has been lodged with the committee—that is, Ramirez may have told her story to the media, but, unlike Ford, she has not contacted the committee directly. An aide to a second Judiciary Committee member told me, “Republicans feel like it would be odd to stop processing the first allegation because there’s a second.”

Yet Republicans also fear that further delays will allow for more of what they describe as false allegations. “The more we let Dems delay,” the first Senate aide told me, “the more women get coached into remembering Kavanaugh assaulted them.” (There’s no public evidence that Ford or Ramirez was coached.)

According to emails shared with me, the White House also sent surrogates a series of tweets from Senator Lindsey Graham encouraging Republicans to hold the line. “Whether it’s coaching witnesses or reporting thinly-sourced stories without proper verification, everything is fair game and falls into the category of—‘The Ends Justify the Means,’” Graham wrote in a tweet Monday morning. “What we are witnessing is the total collapse of the traditional confirmation process for a Supreme Court nominee,” he wrote in another. “It is being replaced by a game of delay, deception, and wholesale character assassination.”

Kavanaugh is digging in his heels as well. In a letter sent on Monday afternoon, he told Grassley and ranking member Dianne Feinstein that he would “not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process.”

“There is now a frenzy to come up with something—anything—that will block this process and a vote on my confirmation from occurring,” he wrote. “These are smears, pure and simple. And they debase our public discourse.”

Ultimately, it’s McConnell’s political calculus—not the Judiciary Committee’s—that could prove most crucial in determining Kavanaugh’s fate. Whether the majority leader’s apparent stance—that pulling Kavanaugh’s confirmation would harm rather than help his members’ chances in November—holds firm remains to be seen. “This has become a complete circus,” one House GOP aide lamented to me, “and you never know what comes next in the circus.”

After all, the aide added, “it’s only Monday.”