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Republicans are adopting Trump’s tactics in Kavanaugh battle

The Senate Judiciary panel will hear further testimony on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination for the Supreme Court on Thursday. Erin Schaff/New York Times

WASHINGTON — Deny the accusation. Attack the accusers. Then soothe the political base by going on Fox News to explain it all away.

And most importantly: Never back down.

That’s the playbook President Trump has used to sidestep multiple allegations of womanizing and sexual misconduct against him. Now, he and some Republicans are using many of the same tactics to push Brett Kavanaugh’s troubled nomination to the Supreme Court through the Senate.

There was a time these tactics made the Republican establishment both nauseous and nervous. But in another sign of how Trump has taken over the GOP, he and Republicans have ripped up the rules for a high court confirmation and adopted Trump’s battle-tested, hyper-combative ways for the Kavanaugh fight. It comes after a relatively disciplined nomination process for his first nominee and a quiet process through much of the early stages of the Kavanaugh pick.


Not any more. The president — who earlier in the week called sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh “totally political’’ — ratcheted up his counteroffensive Tuesday in a bid to redefine allegations of sexual misconduct as partisan weaponry.

He called the second of Kavanaugh’s accusers “inebriated and all messed up” and implied she couldn’t credibly make an allegation against the judge, whom she accuses of exposing himself more than three decades ago when they were Yale undergraduates.

He broadly disparaged Democrats, saying they were playing a “con game” by demanding that the accusers’ claims be investigated and given a full airing. The president even took the time to spell out the word, “C-O-N.’’

The president’s remarks followed a remarkable appearance by Kavanaugh and his wife, Ashley, on the friendly turf of Fox News on Monday night, where Kavanaugh firmly denied he engaged in sexual misconduct.

The GOP strategy appears to be to show no weakness. Most Republicans continued Tuesday to aggressively pursue confirmation of their seriously wounded nominee, without qualification, even before hearing from the first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, who is scheduled to testify Thursday. She says Kavanaugh attacked her and covered her mouth when they were both in high school.


The strategic moves are also geared toward placating a conservative base by destroying the credibility of the alleged victims. If Kavanaugh’s nomination collapses, Trump and Senate leaders can tell supporters they mounted a vigorous defense. And if he wins confirmation, they can declare victory over what they have branded a Democratic “smear’’ campaign.

“I would put this at a new low,” said Benjamin Barton, a law professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. “It is weirdly nonsubstantive. A functional ‘advice and consent’ hearings process is about whether [the nominee] can do the job. This way of getting at it — and this way of handling it — doesn’t strike me as highly functional.”

Barton said that rather than fact-seeking — which is the traditional role of the Senate hearings process — this has turned into a political effort by both parties to play to the base.

“That’s super destructive for this kind of process,” Barton said.

Republican leaders have also rebuffed calls for an FBI investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct, echoing Trump’s distrust for the federal agency and undercutting assertions that the committee process is focused on fact-finding. This view is not unanimous. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of the few undecided Republicans, hinted Tuesday that she believes an FBI probe is warranted.


‘Well, it would sure clear up all the questions, wouldn’t it?’’ Murkowski said.

However, she later said the Judiciary Committee could handle the investigation for now.

Kavanaugh came under fire after the woman he knew in high school, Ford, accused him of sexual assault at a party when they were both in their teens. Another woman, Deborah Ramirez, told The New Yorker magazine that he exposed himself to her when they were students at Yale University.

Kavanaugh is Trump’s second pick for the Supreme Court — his first, Neil Gorsuch, was confirmed in 66 days with far less acrimony. He replaced Antonin Scalia, who was also a conservative.

But the current Supreme Court vacancy is different — it became open when Anthony Kennedy retired. And, since Kennedy was often a swing vote on the court, this is the first time Trump is replacing a moderate justice with a solidly conservative one, a move that is expected to radically change the ideological makeup of the court.

Kavanaugh’s supporters say that it’s the Democrats using the hardball tactics and they are just responding to tricks played by the minority party.

“For the Democrats and their radical allies, they think this justified their ‘take no enemies approach,’ ” said Brian Baker, president of 45Committee, a political nonprofit group that is backing Kavanaugh’s candidacy. “They wanted to delay, delay, delay.”

His ire is reserved for Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary panel and who was aware of allegations of sexual misconduct but didn’t pass the information on to other members of the panel for weeks.


Feinstein has defended her actions by saying she wanted to respect the woman’s desire to remain anonymous.

“She acted like a partisan political hack and has embarrassed her office and the US Senate,” Baker said.

If the Democrats are playing hardball, they contend they have just cause: They remain bitter Senate Republicans were able to prevent then-President Obama from appointing a Supreme Court nominee in his final year in office.

This sink into partisanship concerning the court has been going on for quite some time, though it’s now become so onerous that some longtime senators worry the land’s highest court will be tarnished irrevocably.

“This just makes it worse,” said Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee who said that this is the worst Supreme Court fight he’s seen in more than four decades in the Senate. “It is going to undermine the credibility the Supreme Court in the eyes of the American people.

His Republican colleagues agree about the problem but not the cause of it.

“I’ve never seen it like this before. I’ve not experienced this in all these years,” said Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who was elected to the Senate in 1994. “And it is just 100 percent partisan.”

Inhofe blamed Democrats, whom he said were opposed to Kavanaugh from the start, for the rancor. The president, he said, is simply responding to them.


“The president is living in the midst of this partisan battle,” Inhofe said, “and I think in his style, he’s got to answer back, he’s not going to sit back and let something happen.”

Another reason for the partisanship is this is the second Supreme Court pick to be considered under new Senate rules that eliminated the filibuster for nominees, meaning the majority party can confirm someone with a simple majority.

The Republicans don’t need Democratic votes and have little incentive to build a broader consensus around their selection.

But even with that change, the process feels wrong to seasoned observers.

“Nothing about this process is normal,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Senator Edward Kennedy, a longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The Supreme Court has become as political as every other branch of government.”

Material from The Washington Post was used in this report. Annie Linskey can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey. Jess Bidgood can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.