WASHINGTON — In a head-spinning few days, Republicans have moved into a full offensive posture over the latest allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, leaving congressional Democrats in a defensive crouch as they try to change the subject.
Tuesday’s dueling news conferences, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, perfectly captured the new dynamic.
After their respective policy lunches, McConnell devoted his entire opening remarks, more than three minutes, to the Kavanaugh issue, highlighting a clarification The New York Times added to a story about how an alleged victim did not recall an alleged incident of sexual misconduct during the justice’s college days.
“I think it is truly outrageous. We had this investigation a year ago; we had this vote a year ago,” McConnell told reporters.
That came after McConnell, opening the Senate floor Monday, devoted his entire remarks, more than five minutes, to the Kavanaugh issue with just as much indignation.
Schumer never mentioned the latest Kavanaugh imbroglio in Tuesday’s opening comments and appeared exhausted when the topic came up as the very first question.
“Look, I’ve said this before, very simply. I never thought Kavanaugh should be on the bench, and I still don’t today,” he told reporters.
In Senate floor speeches Monday and Tuesday, Schumer covered the waterfront of pending issues: President Donald Trump’s ongoing demands for more money to build a barrier at the border, the overall government funding deadline of Sept. 30, potential gun-control legislation and even a federal regulatory review of Chinese telecom firms.
Since the first allegations emerged a year ago Monday, in a Washington Post story, the Kavanaugh saga has evolved in a familiar refrain.
Seemingly credible accusations get made; Democrats pounce and demand investigations. Republicans grow quiet, until some other allegation emerges that appears to go too far. Then Republicans go into full umbrage mode, pushing Democrats back until the nominee is confirmed (or, in this week’s case, until Democrats change the subject).
Some Democrats acknowledged that the ground had completely shifted. The Post’s Seung Min Kim asked Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in leadership, if Republicans were enjoying this story.
“Well, they are,” he said.
At that moment on Tuesday, a GOP senator was holding the floor blasting those Democrats who were calling for Kavanaugh’s impeachment over the issue, including two senators running for the 2020 presidential nomination, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Durbin lamented that so many jump to impeachment, whether of Trump or other administration officials. It is virtually impossible to get to a two-thirds majority for a conviction in the Senate — which means any impeachment would divert the Democratic-led House’s energy from kitchen-table issues.
“You know, it’s become a knee-jerk reaction among many Democrats that if you’re unhappy with President Trump or some of his appointments, impeachment is a recourse. It’s rare in American history,” the Democratic whip said.
“I just don’t believe that this is what we should be doing at this point. I mean, I voted against the man; I don’t believe he should be on the Supreme Court,” he added.
Senior House Democrats have also tried to sidestep the Kavanaugh matter, although their inquiry into Trump’s 2016 campaign has the potential to turn into its own impeachment process.
“We are concentrating our resources on determining whether to impeach the president,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told a New York radio station Monday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, asked whether the House needed to look into the new allegation against Kavanaugh, said “no.”
As a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Durbin had a front-row seat for last September’s epic clash over Kavanaugh. It played out in similar fashion, albeit in a longer, slower process than these past few days.
On Sept. 16, 2018, The Post story landed, with Christine Blasey Ford, a professor in Palo Alto who grew up in the Maryland suburbs at the same time as Kavanaugh, accusing him of pinning her to a bed during a high school party and trying to take her clothes off.
Kavanaugh denied the allegation.
Coming on the heels of the #MeToo movement, the claim knocked Republicans back on their heels. They agreed to hold a hearing with Ford and then Kavanaugh to address the issues, but Republicans were afraid to be seen even asking Ford or the nominee about the allegations, so they hired a female Arizona prosecutor to ask the questions.
As the hearing approached, more allegations surfaced against Kavanaugh, most prominently from high-profile attorney Michael Avenatti’s client talking about gang rape parties.
When the hearing unfolded, Ford’s testimony was poised and, to most senators, credible. Midway through questioning of Kavanaugh, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, started asking his own questions, latching on to the most fantastic allegations and asking the then-federal judge if he had committed those crimes.
It conflated the stories and made the entire process look bad, which created a conservative rallying cry on behalf of Kavanaugh. He won confirmation, with just 50 votes, on Oct. 6.
That clash helped galvanize conservative voters, who helped Republicans flip Senate seats in the red-leaning states of Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, adding to the GOP majority during a midterm election that was otherwise miserable for Trump’s party.
Now, Democrats fear that this is deja vu, all over again.
The New York Times posted a story Saturday night by two reporters summarizing findings of their new book, which appeared to back up a claim of sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh while at Yale University.
Such verification would raise the possibility that the justice lied to the Senate in his hearing last September, a potentially impeachable offense. Harris and Warren called for impeachment hearings.
But the Times story included another allegation of similar behavior that drew most of the attention, until editors posted an update Sunday that included the denial by the alleged victim.
Like Graham a year ago, Republicans jumped on this journalistic mishap to try to destroy the overall content of the book. “I’m distressed by the declining journalistic principles, so much on display,” McConnell said Tuesday.
While Democrats tried to turn the focus back to gun legislation, the GOP leader signaled that he was happy to keep talking about the Supreme Court.
“Make no mistake about it,” he said Tuesday, “Justice Kavanaugh is going to be on the Supreme Court as long as he chooses to serve.”