The Republican rush to confirm Kavanaugh backfired.
“Yes, there were parties. The drinking age was 18. Yes, the seniors were legal and had beer there. Yes, people might have had too many beers on occasion,” Kavanaugh said. “In high school, I think all of us have done things we look back on in high school and cringe a bit. That’s not what we are talking about. We are talking about an allegation of sexual assault.”
He also said, “I did not have sexual intercourse or anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter.” (That’s not, of course, mutually exclusive with Ford’s account.)
None of what Kavanaugh was saying was surprising per se. It was the fact that the nominee himself was saying it that was unusual. For a prospective justice to appear on cable news in such an interview is highly unusual—perhaps unheard of. (Justices tend to be careful about what they say, period, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg was forced to apologize in 2016 for speaking critically to the press about Donald Trump.) That’s especially true because the venue was Fox News, which has become, for many intents, the house organ of the Trump White House. The network’s former head Bill Shine, ousted in a scandal over cover-ups of sexual harassment, is now the president’s communications director.
Most Supreme Court nominees come to Washington with a decent amount of experience in politics. Neil Gorsuch’s mother was the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Gorsuch himself worked in the George W. Bush Justice Department. Elena Kagan went straight from the Obama administration to the Court. Sonia Sotomayor held various political appointments before joining the federal bench.
Nonetheless, the general practice is for nominees to pose as political naïfs, glad-handing awkwardly as they are squired around Capitol Hill by handlers who introduce them to senators and prep them for the gauntlet. This pageantry is part of a process in which nominees from both parties pretend, implausibly, not to have ideological precommitments.
Kavanaugh, however, is an experienced political hand: He worked for Independent Counsel Ken Starr while he was investigating the Clinton administration, and was reportedly in favor of particularly aggressive tactics; he served in the George W. Bush administration first as an associate White House counsel and then as staff secretary, a crucial behind-the-scenes role. His first nomination to the federal bench was stalled, in part, because Democrats decried his partisanship; he eventually succeeded in 2006.
In keeping with his resume, Kavanaugh has approached his nomination battle more like a political operative than a staid federal judge. Between the Fox interview and a fiery letter that he released on Monday, Kavanaugh doesn’t seem content to sit back and wait for the White House political team to defend him. Perhaps not since Robert Bork has a Supreme Court nominee fought so aggressively for himself.