“None of This Was Fair”: the Kavanaugh Nomination Marks the Triumph of Trumpism on Capitol Hill | The New Yorker

“None of This Was Fair”: the Kavanaugh Nomination Marks the Triumph of Trumpism on Capitol Hill | The New Yorker.

By the time Senator Susan Collins finally ended what remained of the suspense, at 3:52 P.M. on Friday afternoon, it was already fair to wonder what, exactly, the country had gained from an agonizing week of shouting over the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. The Senate started Friday in more or less the same political place where it had been before Christine Blasey Ford testified eight days earlier, painfully excavating her memories of what she said was a sexual assault in 1982 by the would-be Justice. The Senate was in same political place that it had been before Kavanaugh’s angry, outraged rebuttal to Ford’s testimony, and the same place it had been before the F.B.I. investigation of the allegations ended inconclusively, with the late-night delivery of a secret report for senators’ eyes only. Republicans claimed that the F.B.I. report turned up nothing to substantiate the charges against Kavanaugh; Democrats called the truncated probe a pointless coverup. And so Kavanaugh’s fate on Friday morning hinged on the undeclared decisions of the same four senators who had been officially undecided all along: Collins, Jeff Flake, Lisa Murkowski, and Joe Manchin, three Republicans and a West Virginia Democrat.

The city, and the country, hung on their slightest pronouncements. We parsed their cryptic words, scrutinized their body language, found meaning in the person with whom they walked the halls or sat beside in the Senate cafeteria. Flake planned to talk again with his Democratic buddy Chris Coons. Collins told a reporter that the F.B.I. had completed a “thorough” look at the allegations. Murkowski didn’t show up at the Senate Republican lunch meeting on Thursday. White House sources were “cautiously optimistic,” Politico reported. What did it all mean? Headed into the Friday-morning cloture vote that might, or might not, tell us Kavanaugh’s fate, a senior Republican source told Axios’s Jonathan Swan that the Party’s leaders had no real idea. “We don’t have fifty votes,” he said.

But in the end the spectacle produced more noise than news. As wrenching as this last week has been, as important a cultural moment as it may yet turn out to be, when it came to the question of whether Brett Kavanaugh would be confirmed to the Supreme Court, Hill watchers found much that was surprisingly ordinary amid the circus. In this polarized, Trump-era Senate, with its 51-49 Republican majority, there are, in fact, few genuine fence-sitters, and moments of high drama are rare. John McCain’s late-night thumbs-down sinking of last year’s Obamacare repeal was an outlier, not a precedent. Jeff Flake often appears ready to buck his Republican leadership, but hardly ever does so. Susan Collins, as the Boston Globe pointed out this summer, has voted with fellow-Republicans ninety-nine per cent of the time on judicial nominations. And she was always leaning toward doing so in the case of Kavanaugh. Party usually wins out.

Which is why Kavanaugh, as he had been before anyone in America had ever heard of Christine Blasey Ford, was always likely to secure confirmation, if only by the smallest of margins. This was true on Friday morning, and it remained true on Friday evening. The late-morning cloture vote, a key procedural step along the way to final confirmation, offered more clarity on this point, if not yet definitive closure: Flake, Collins, and Manchin voted yes, Murkowski no. Their votes strongly suggested where this was all headed: the nomination would proceed to the floor for a final vote on Saturday with a likely 51-49 tally in Kavanaugh’s favor. A few hours later, Collins’ long floor speech laying out her case for Kavanaugh confirmed it. Collins proclaimed Ford’s testimony “sincere, painful, and compelling,” but also uncorroborated and therefore irrelevant from the point of view of her vote. Manchin, an endangered Democrat from one of the most pro-Trump states in the country, cemented the outcome with a statement announcing that he, too, would vote yes, which he released a bare minute after Collins concluded her speech to a standing ovation from her Republican colleagues.

So in the end the main difference after a week of national debate about sexual assaults and due process, after Ford’s tears and Kavanaugh’s rage, after President Trump mocked Ford and thousands of protesters decried it, was that just about everyone, everywhere, was angrier. Did it matter that so many women had offered up their own long-buried stories of rape and abuse? That Ford had blown up her whole life to testify, only to have Republicans praise her as “credible” but disregard her story? For his part, Kavanaugh will take a seat on the Supreme Court forever shadowed by allegations that few will believe fully disproved, given an investigation so cursory that the F.B.I. interviewed just nine people and spent just a few days on the matter. “None of this was fair,” Murkowski told reporters after she decided to vote no, a last-minute choice she made only as she walked into the Senate chamber on Friday morning. On that, and probably that alone, most of her colleagues could agree.

For President Trump, meanwhile, the whole fight has, arguably, been a triumph, and exactly the sort of triumph he loves: divisive and loud, with enraged liberals sputtering and his political base riled up and loving it. Trump appears to have succeeded in nominating two new conservatives to the Supreme Court in less than two years, cementing its turn to the right for years or decades. All the better, from the President’s point of view, he did so while igniting a new round in the American culture war only a few weeks before the midterm elections. Trump stoked his voters’ sense of grievance by claiming that Kavanaugh was the victim of a “big fat con job” to smear an innocent man by evil feminists, liberals, and even the Jewish financier George Soros. As a bonus, the media temporarily shifted its attention away from the meltdown that is Trump’s White House. We were no longer talking about Bob Woodward and Anonymous, the flipping of Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, the impending report from the special counsel, Robert Mueller, or the President’s escalating threats to fire the Attorney General and his deputy. Even many of his #NeverTrump critics fell in line with the President over the Kavanaugh nomination. And some of the party stalwarts on Capitol Hill who had disdained the President in 2016 sounded an awful lot like Trump as they shouted their outrage over Kavanaugh’s treatment. Kavanaugh himself will go down as the most openly partisan candidate to make it to the Supreme Court in modern times, having taken the unprecedented step of campaigning for his job on Fox News and in the Wall Street Journal, while blaming the allegations against him on Trump-hating Democrats out for revenge “on behalf of the Clintons.” “The surprise was not that Republicans on the Hill acquiesced to President Trump. They did that a long time ago,” Charlie Sykes, the former radio-talk show host and contributing editor to the conservative Weekly Standard, told me. Sykes is one of Trump’s few remaining G.O.P. critics. “Now they have become Trump.”

A generation ago, there was another Senate confirmation fight derailed at the last minute by serious allegations of drinking and sexual misconduct. John Tower, a retired Republican senator from Texas, was nominated to be President George H. W. Bush’s defense secretary. The 1989 fight over his confirmation took place two years before Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas transfixed the nation, before talk of pubic hairs and Coke cans, and a would-be Justice’s porn-watching habits forever changed the national discourse.

Most commentators have compared the Kavanaugh fight to that over Thomas’s nomination, and with good reason. Like Kavanaugh, Thomas eventually won, while at the same time the Senate’s deeply flawed process and female outrage over it produced a Democratic victory at the ballot box in the next election. But ever since the Ford allegations about Kavanaugh surfaced, I have thought about the John Tower fight, and especially one of its most poignant, little-known subplots.

In the early ninteen-sixties, the journalist Sally Quinn was a twenty-year-old sophomore at Smith College when she met Tower at a cocktail party given by her parents. In a memoir, “Finding Magic,” published last year, Quinn recounted how, after the party, Tower asked her to lunch on the Hill, a date that was postponed to dinner. He attempted to rape her in the back seat of a taxi afterward. Quinn described how she was in shock, how she pleaded with him, “Senator, Senator, please stop,” and how she begged the cab driver, who realized what was happening, and hurried her to her parents’ home. “Overwhelmed with guilt and shame,” she told no one about it for years. When Tower was nominated for the Pentagon job, in 1989, Quinn was a famous journalist married to Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of the Washington Post, when two F.B.I. agents knocked on her door and asked about the incident. Quinn refused to talk to them. She did not believe her account would remain confidential. Besides, she had no corroboration, no proof. Who would believe her?

I called Quinn the night before Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to ask what she thought about her own experience all these years later. “I could have been Anita Hill,” she pointed out, “but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want it to ruin my life.” I wondered whether Quinn would think things were different this time, that the world had changed at all in the nearly thirty years since she had her own chance to decide whether to go public with her story of abuse at the hands of a powerful man. No way, she said. “Nothing has changed since Anita Hill, not a damn thing.” It sounded pessimistic to me, but also not necessarily wrong.

I called Quinn back on Thursday evening, after a tumultuous week, when it was already clear that the tumult would likely not change the outcome of Kavanaugh’s lifetime appointment. Quinn said that she believed Ford had been telling the truth, but that it would not matter. “Bottom line,” she said, “civic duty or no, it’s just not worth it.”

The New Yorker · by Susan B. Glasser · October 6, 2018

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