Trump faces dual crises in Kavanaugh and Rosenstein – and both could come to a head on Thursday
The one-two punch over Kavanaugh and Rosenstein marked the start of a potentially consequential week, with the president in New York presiding over the UN General Assembly
Antsy and impatient, US President Donald Trump called Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell on Saturday with an unmistakable message: call the vote on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and call it soon, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
Trump has been simmering with frustration over what one senior White House official dubbed the “molasses-like” pace of Kavanaugh’s confirmation in the Senate, where the president has also long blamed Republican leaders with slow-walking his border wall and other key agenda items.
Despite their public projections of unity, Trump and his aides behind the scenes see Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley as having been too accommodating to Christine Blasey Ford, the California professor who has alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when he was 17, by delaying her hearing until Thursday.
The president has said Republicans are too easily manipulated by Democrats, that he is sick of Ford’s lawyers getting their way and that he does not believe her accusations are credible, according to a Republican briefed on Trump’s private comments.
Trump told Kavanaugh in a call on Monday that he remained behind him and wished him luck in an interview scheduled later in the day with Fox News, a senior White House official said.
During the interview, Kavanaugh appeared alongside his wife in a televised interview where he provided intimate details of his youth.
“I’ve never sexually assaulted anyone, not in high school, not ever. I’ve always treated women with dignity and respect,” Kavanaugh told Fox News, likely telegraphing the line he will take when he appears before the Senate to testify on the matter on Thursday.
He also presented an image of his character that departed radically from what was portrayed in the allegations, seemingly claiming his virginity at the time of the accusations as a defence.
“I did not have sexual intercourse or anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter. And the girls from the schools I went to and I were friends.”
His wife Ashley, a one-time personal secretary to president George W. Bush, said she backed her husband’s version of the events.
The White House found itself grappling on Monday with a second crisis as well – the uncertain job status of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe and is a frequent target of the president’s ire. Rosenstein is expected to meet on Thursday with Trump, and it remains unclear whether he intends to resign, will be fired or will remain in his post.
The two hours and 10 minutes between the first report that Rosenstein had verbally offered to resign and the official White House statement that he was still on the job was a period of confusion in the West Wing – and on cable news and Twitter, pure mayhem. At one point, about an hour into the Rosenstein melee, a White House official said the communications team was still trying to finalise its official talking points – including whether Rosenstein was leaving.
The one-two punch over Kavanaugh and Rosenstein marked the start of a potentially consequential week and again plunged the White House into tumult, with the president in New York presiding over the start of the annual parade of leaders addressing the UN General Assembly.
Both issues are especially personal for Trump: he sees the Russia investigation as an existential threat looming over his presidency, and, as someone who has been accused of sexual assault by over a dozen women, he is sensitive to the fear that a powerful man’s career could be ruined by a single accusation, the president’s associates have said.
Trump’s instinct since the Ford allegations first surfaced over a week ago has been to defend his Supreme Court pick and try to muscle his nomination through. Now, with new allegations and fresh signs of uncertainty, the White House feels extraordinary pressure from Trump’s conservative base to not fold in the face of what it sees as a smear campaign from Democrats and the media.
“They don’t want us to back down on Kavanaugh,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and an informal Trump adviser. “If we fumble on the Supreme Court, it’s the most fundamentally unifying principle we have and the most important thing to most voters. If they view that the Senate leadership is backing away, they view that the candidates will be punished in November.”
The battle for the Supreme Court intensified over the weekend. On Sunday, The New Yorker published allegations from a second woman, Deborah Ramirez, who said Kavanaugh exposed himself to her when they were both students at Yale University. And Michael Avenatti – the lawyer for adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, who has alleged she had extramarital affair with Trump – said he represents a third woman who plans to come forward with damaging claims about Kavanaugh.
Ramirez’s account in The New Yorker was widely viewed inside the White House as flimsy, and the sudden emergence of Avenatti further galvanised supporters of Kavanaugh, who claimed a partisan character assault was under way and crowed it was devolving in a circus-like sideshow. Avenatti has publicly toyed with running against Trump as a Democrat in 2020.
“It’s beginning to look like this is pure, ugly American politics,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser. “If the Democrats set out on this journey to energise the Republican base, they sure have. They’re absolutely livid.”
The president also weighed in with words of support for Kavanaugh, telling reporters at the United Nations that he supports his nominee “all the way” and that the allegations against him were “totally political.”
“There’s a chance that this could be one of the single most unfair, unjust things to happen for a candidate for anything,” Trump said.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse