On Thursday afternoon, CNN reported that White House aides were “stunned” by how restrained President Donald Trump had been in responding to the sexual-assault allegations lodged against Brett Kavanaugh. Another official told Axios, “Hopefully he can keep it together until Monday. That’s only, like, another 48 hours right?”
By Friday morning, Trump aides’ luck ran out.
In a pair of Twitter posts, the president attacked Christine Blasey Ford, questioning why she had not come forward with her allegations at the time of the incident, 36 years ago.
I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2018
The radical left lawyers want the FBI to get involved NOW. Why didn’t someone call the FBI 36 years ago?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2018
Kavanaugh has denied wrongdoing. Trump had previously defended the judge, but said Ford’s accusations should be heard.“I’m not saying anything about anybody else, but I want to tell you: Brett Kavanaugh is one of the finest human beings you ever have the privilege of knowing or meeting,” Trump said at a rally in Las Vegas on Thursday night . “We’ll have to let it play out, but I want to tell you: He is a fine, fine person.”
Now Trump has switched tacks, ahead of what’s sure to be a frenzied week of news. While the president is traveling on Friday, he is spending the weekend at his club in New Jersey, where he should have time to consume news and tweet. Meanwhile, Ford’s lawyers continue to negotiate with the Senate Judiciary Committee about testifying before lawmakers. She is reportedly willing to speak to the committee under certain conditions, but not on Monday, as Chairman Chuck Grassley has insisted.
Every time a powerful man faces this kind of accusation, it’s a reminder that at least 19 women have accused the president of some sort of sexual misconduct. And it’s a reminder that, consistently, Trump has dismissed women who have brought forth allegations as liars and supported the men they accused.
The specific defense Trump offered Friday morning is notable because he’s previously used it to defend himself.
For example, when a journalist who had covered Trump said that he had attempted to assault her at Mar-a-Lago, the then-candidate argued that the allegation wasn’t credible, because she hadn’t written about it at the time:
Why didn't the writer of the twelve year old article in People Magazine mention the "incident" in her story. Because it did not happen!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2016
Contra the president, many accusations of sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, and sexual harassment are not reported at the time they happen, if ever, for a variety of reasons. Victims may be ashamed or embarrassed, feel they have done something wrong, or simply fear a stigma from saying they were violated. They may worry that they will be attacked for bringing allegations forward—a fear that the abuse being hurled at Ford now bears out. And they may not (despite the president dragging Ford’s parents into his tweet Friday morning) feel comfortable speaking to their family about it.
But it’s not hard to understand how a victim might feel differently and decide to go public about an old incident if she knows her alleged attacker is on the verge of becoming president of the United States. Or, for that matter, if he’s about to get a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As Trump said, Ford is now asking the FBI to investigate her claims, a request Republicans have resisted. Yet that’s the logical agency to be involved, since the FBI conducted Kavanaugh’s background check and handles such investigations for the federal government. It is also, as several former Trump aides have discovered, a crime to lie to the FBI. Ford’s willingness to speak to the FBI, knowing that lying would constitute a crime, seems to bolster her credibility. Conversely, the reluctance of Senate Judiciary Republicans to involve the FBI and to call Mark Judge, a childhood friend of Kavanaugh’s whom Ford named as a witness, raises the question of why they might be hesitant to have Judge (or, for that matter, Kavanaugh) testify. (Some Democrats have already accused Kavanaugh of lying under oath during confirmation hearings.)
There is precedent for FBI involvement. In 1991, when Anita Hill alleged sexual harassment by the then–Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray requested that the bureau investigate the claims, which it did.
Why would this time be any different? As politically charged as the Thomas hearings were, the current moment is even more acrimonious. While the defeat of Robert Bork’s bid in 1987 had begun the stark politicization of Supreme Court nominations, they were not yet a standard political food fight. These days, contentious nominations and close votes are the rule, not the exception. Beyond that, Senate Republicans might have felt more confident in 1991 that the claims against Thomas would not derail his nomination than they are today. Contemporary society as a whole is less forgiving of sexual harassment, though the Senate may not have changed as much.
Some Kavanaugh supporters have argued that Ford’s accusations are merely a tactic of political gamesmanship, intended to either derail or delay his nomination. Some have argued, without evidence, that Ford is a Democratic operative. (Republicans can hardly be said to be hearing the allegations in good faith. “I’ll listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close,” Senator Lindsey Graham said. “Here’s what I want to tell you: In the very near future, Judge Kavanaugh will be on the United States Supreme Court,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday.) They have argued that Kavanaugh’s behavior, even if true, was just boys being boys, or just horseplay, and that in any case, what happened then is ancient history that shouldn’t affect his nomination today.
Some have even suggested that the allegations are a case of mistaken identity. In the most extreme, and astonishing, case, the conservative legal scholar and activist Ed Whelan wrote a long (and long-awaited) Twitter thread that argued that Ford was confusing Kavanaugh with another classmate. The argument involved speculative connections, floor plans, Google Maps, and a baseless allegation that another man, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s whom Whelan says he resembles, might have actually assaulted Ford. Ford rebutted the claim, saying she knew both men and would not have confused them.
Whelan, facing intense pressure, deleted the thread and apologized, saying, “I made an appalling and inexcusable mistake of judgment in posting the tweet thread in a way that identified Kavanaugh’s Georgetown Prep classmate.” In reality, he had not just identified the classmate, but had also suggested he might have tried to sexually assault a woman.
Negotiations over whether and when Ford might appear before the Judiciary Committee continue. Republicans face a choice between slowing down the Kavanaugh nomination and acting dismissively toward a possible victim. An activist group is already airing TV and digital ads in six states attacking Republican senators for their handling of the Kavanaugh allegations. If Ford does testify, Republicans will have to appear respectful in their questioning; they have floated plans to have staffers, rather than the aging, entirely male majority members, do the talking (though Ford has reportedly asked that only members question her). Meanwhile, the president has dropped his restraint, and has all weekend to deliver more commentary about Ford. It’s been an ugly week in the Kavanaugh nomination, and there’s a good chance it will get uglier.
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