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Inside the ‘extraordinary’ campaign to put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court

President Trump's nomination of federal judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018 launched a bitter partisan fight that grew even more polarized when Christine Blasey Ford said Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in high school. Kavanaugh was ultimately confirmed and now sits on the Court. The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus details his rise in a new book she discusses with Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The nation's capital was riveted during the fall of 2018 after President Trump, for his second nomination to the Supreme Court, chose a 53-year-old federal judge, Brett Kavanaugh.

    What was already a bitter partisan fight grew even more so after a California woman, Christine Blasey Ford, charged that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in high school. He forcefully rejected the claim and went on to sit on the court.

    But the fascinating the story of how he got there is the focus of a new book, "Supreme Ambition," by Washington Post columnist and editor Ruth Marcus, a familiar face here on the "NewsHour."

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour," Ruth Marcus.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Thank you. It's always great to be here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And congratulations on the book.

    So,was this a search-and-destroy mission, a calculated effort to take him down, as Brett Kavanaugh charged, in his hearing? Or was what Christine Blasey Ford and others said about him true?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    I think that what Christine Blasey Ford and others said about Justice Kavanaugh was true.

    But it's also true that Democrats inside the Senate and in outside groups did want to find a way to take Brett Kavanaugh down. So when he complained that people were out to get him, that was fair. The question is, what was the evidence against him? Was it adequately investigated?

    And when there was a question in some people's minds about what happened — and it's hard to determine what happened 35 years earlier — who gets the benefit of the doubt?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I have never seen or never read about a campaign to get someone chosen for the court as orchestrated as this was.

    I mean, Kavanaugh himself was involved. Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose seat, whose vacancy he was filling, was involved.

    Tell — give us a sense, Ruth, of just how extraordinary the campaign was to pick Brett Kavanaugh.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    So, there were a couple different campaigns. The first phase of the campaign came when Brett Kavanaugh wasn't on President Trump, then-candidate Trump's list to be on the Supreme Court.

    You may remember candidate Trump did something no candidate had done before, which is to say, here is my list. He put out one. He put out another. There was one name that was particularly missing from that list. It was Brett Kavanaugh.

    So, when President Trump surprised all of us and became President Trump, Brett Kavanaugh had a problem. He wasn't on that list. And one of the people, I report in "Supreme Ambition," who went to bat for him was Justice Anthony Kennedy. He had clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy.

    The White House was eager, desperate even, to convince Justice Kennedy that it would be safe to retire. And when Justice Kennedy came to the White House to swear in Neil Gorsuch, President Trump's first choice for the Supreme Court, he asked for some time alone with the president, and suggested that there was a name missing from his list.

    And, lo and behold, a few months later, Brett Kavanaugh's name turned up on that list.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How unusual for a justice of the Supreme Court to go personally to the president, as Justice Kennedy did?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    It's quite unusual. It was a very unusual intervention from a sitting justice.

    Justices can say nice things about people, but this was particularly effective. And it's an illustration of Justice Kavanaugh's ability to find extremely influential and powerful mentors. In some ways, the reason it was is hard for him to get on the list was, the president he had worked for, President George W. Bush.

    But President Bush became, once he was selected, one of his most powerful advocates, calling senators on his behalf, vouching for him, making sure that his library was able to produce all the documents that were necessary in order to get him confirmed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You paint, as we said, this extraordinary picture of the movement, in essence, to get him nominated, first of all, and then to get him confirmed.

    And it's a process that it appears the conservatives, the Republicans have done a much better job of figuring out than the Democrats. Is that how you see it?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    It is.

    The book is called "Supreme Ambition" for two reasons. One is, it reflects Brett Kavanaugh's ambition since really from the very early years as a lawyer to get onto the Supreme Court. But it also reflects the ambition of the conservative movement to finally, after 30 years of trying and getting close, but having it elude them, to cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

    And the book tells the story of the lengths that Republicans in the Senate and elsewhere went to, to make sure that he was going to get across the finish line.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There were doubts among some conservatives that he was conservative enough, in their views, to begin with, that, as you point out, he was too much of a Bushie, loyal to President Bush.

    And then there were others, Democrats, who said he was far too conservative. Who is he at his core? What is his ideology, as we see on the court and just from knowing him?

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Well, that is partly to be determined.

    We had one term of Brett Kavanaugh, Justice Kavanaugh, where he showed himself to be significantly less conservative than Justice Gorsuch. That's not to say he's not conservative. He's a very conservative judge. But his conservatism is more toward the center, closer to the chief justice, who he is very close to, than it is to the more extreme conservatives on the court.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, Ruth Marcus, I want you to read — there's — the last few sentences in the book are pretty telling.

    I want you to read that, and then talk about why you have written this at the end here, where that mark is.

  • Ruth Marcus:


    "The country has lived with the results of badly run or tainted elections. For the same reasons, it has to endure the consequences of a flawed confirmation process. But it doesn't have to excuse what happened. The Kavanaugh confirmation discredited the White House and the Senate, which is supposed to play an independent advise-and-consent role.

    "In the end, it disserved both Kavanaugh and the country. As a result, his tenure will forever have an asterisk attached, a blot on Kavanaugh and the court that is, to use Christine Blasey Ford's phrase, indelible."


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pretty tough.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    I wrote that because one of the things that I found most tragic here is that we didn't have an intensive, responsible enough FBI investigation in the end.

    The goal of Don McGahn, the goal of Mitch McConnell, the Senate leader, was not to get at the truth. It was to get at 50 votes. And they ignored potential witnesses that could have helped us to get further at the truth.

    And I think that's just something we're going to have to live with, and Justice Kavanaugh is Justice Kavanaugh. And long after we're done with impeachment and long after we're done with the next election, he and Justice Gorsuch, and who knows what else might happen, will be President Trump's most lasting legacy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ruth Marcus.

    The book is "Supreme Ambition: Brett Kavanaugh and the Conservative Takeover."

    Thank you.

  • Ruth Marcus:

    Thank you.

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