Full Episode: Brett Kavanaugh's SCOTUS nomination moves toward final vote

Oct. 05, 2018 AT 9:17 p.m. EDT

A partisan battle over Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court dominated Washington this week. The panelists discussed how the nomination process got to this point, along with what this weekend's confirmation vote could like.

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ROBERT COSTA: Saving Kavanaugh. Senator Susan Collins throws her decisive vote behind President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): (From video.) I will vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh.

MR. COSTA: A heated week in Washington. The precarious Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh moved toward a final vote as the FBI investigated allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, sparking a wider debate over power, politics, and gender.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) For goodness sake, this is the United States of America. Nobody is supposed to be guilty until proven innocent.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) Let them look back on this chapter as the shameful culmination of the scorched-earth politics practiced by the hard right in America.

MR. COSTA: For Democrats, some Republicans, and victims of sexual assault, a moment of reckoning. For many Republicans, a controversy becomes a rallying cry just weeks ahead of the midterms.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Think of your son. Think of your husband. I’ve had many false accusations. I’ve had it all the – I’ve had so many. And when I say it didn’t happen, nobody believes me.

MR. COSTA: We report on the high stakes, next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.

MR. COSTA: Good evening. Reporters began the day at the Capitol and we crowded around senators with our notebooks. The faces of lawmakers in both parties were strained and protesters were chanting outside. There, at the epicenter of our nation’s cultural divide, the fate of President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault and other misconduct, was on the line. And by late Friday afternoon, Kavanaugh was poised to become the next justice on the Supreme Court. Why? The key swing vote, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said in a lengthy floor speech that she would vote yes on Kavanaugh, giving him enough votes for confirmation.

SEN. COLLINS: (From video.) We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy. The presumption of innocence is relevant to the advice and consent function when an accusation departs from a nominee’s otherwise exemplary record.

MR. COSTA: A final vote on the nomination is expected this weekend.

Joining me around the table tonight, Ashley Parker, White House reporter for The Washington Post; Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times; Abby Phillip, White House reporter for CNN; and Kelly O’Donnell, White House correspondent for NBC News.

What a day on Capitol Hill, Kelly.

KELLY O’DONNELL: (Laughs.) Amazing. Amazing.

MR. COSTA: When you listened to Susan Collins say that, when you were watching it, was this someone who was always a swing vote and just turning at the 11th hour, or was this someone who was always trying to get to yes?

MS. O’DONNELL: From the time that Brett Kavanaugh was named, her concern that she expressed was would he be reliable in the area of Roe versus Wade because she is one of the rare abortion-rights advocates in the Republican Party, and her personal meeting made such a difference. But when the allegations came out, when I had contact with her, she was concerned about Mark Judge, the friend – high school-era friend of Brett Kavanaugh, and she was part of the group that wanted that additional FBI information. He did submit to that, Mark Judge. Apparently – we don’t know exactly what was said, but everyone is saying he was unable to corroborate the account given by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. And for Susan Collins, that appeared to end the issue. I think what was so profound is in many ways she made the best reasoned, calm case for Brett Kavanaugh on the Court that we have heard in the whole three months that he has been a nominee, and she did it at the moment where there was the most fire and anger over his nomination. In some ways it’s a surprise, but she, I think, was leaning toward being a yes all along.

MR. COSTA: Calm to be sure, Carl, but she was pretty aggressive at times going after Dr. Ford’s testimony, gently questioning aspects of her account. What did this whole moment tell us about Senator Collins, a supposed maverick?

CARL HULSE: Yeah, it was definitely a defining moment for Susan Collins. She’ll be remembered for this, and every decision from now on that Brett Kavanaugh issues when we assume he gets on the Court, it will be weighed against her. I think that I agree she wanted to get to yes from the beginning. She likes Brett Kavanaugh. She thinks that he is somewhat from the part of the Republican Party that she is familiar with, the Bush administration as opposed to the Trump administration. I like to say that Judge Kavanaugh is really a Bush nominee since he comes out of that –

MS. O’DONNELL: And he’s been calling her as well. Former President Bush has been calling her.

MR. HULSE: Right. Right, and he’s coming from there. And she was also worried that if Kavanaugh fails, then the next nominee is going to be more conservative. You know, this was Susan Collins as former staffer. She was very, you know, methodical. She did her research. She did all her homework. She read all the opinions. And she put together this speech where she just went point by point by point to explain herself. But already the left is mad at her, and you know, this is – if she decides to run again in 2020, this is obviously going to be an overwhelming issue for her.

MR. COSTA: That point about Bush, Ashley, you think about the Republican Party under President Trump, they don’t like his tweets sometime, but they know at the end of the day they want to stack the Supreme Court with conservatives that they like. They feel like they’re getting something out of this bargain.

ASHLEY PARKER: And this is really the bargain that these Republicans have made all along. They don’t like the tweets, they don’t like the tone, they don’t like the style, they often sometimes don’t even like the substance, but they realize that these appointments not just to the Supreme Court – although that cannot be overstated enough – but even just to sort of help stock the conservative judiciary, which has been happening very quietly behind the scenes since the president ever took office. This is one of the key things they care about and one of the key issues where the president is really on their side, and so they are willing to tolerate all of these other things. And if you even look at this trio of senators – and again, Murkowski not voting in the direction they wanted, but everyone else – when the president came out and, for instance, attacked and mocked Dr. Ford at that rally in Mississippi, again, everyone was aghast. They could not believe it. And yet, that didn’t detract from this ultimate prize, which is getting a conservative – in this case, Judge Kavanaugh – onto the Supreme Court.

MR. COSTA: President Bush was calling the senators, but was the White House deeply involved in the whip count here?

ABBY PHILLIP: The president was not necessarily deeply involved because his input wasn’t necessary. It would not have been helpful. But Don McGahn, the White House counsel, is the person – you know, the man behind the curtain here for the White House when it comes to judicial nominations. He is the person driving this whole thing. He is in close contact with Senate leaders all the time. He’s always on the phone with the people that he needs to be on the phone with to find out what’s going on. And I think we saw his input in some really key ways. For example, the op-ed that Brett Kavanaugh decided to write is one that was kind of a risk in some ways, but it seemed necessary to address a really important problem for Kavanaugh, which is that even though he was perceived as a Bush nominee when he got in there, his testimony last week made people wonder has he just transformed into a Trump nominee, has he just become a different kind of Supreme Court justice. And I think the White House tried to recalibrate him this week, and it was necessary because one thing I did not hear Susan Collins talk about in her speech today was that very issue. She did not give any more credence to the idea that there were real doubts about Brett Kavanaugh’s ability to be a measured person on the Court.

MR. COSTA: You mentioned McGahn, but another person involved in everything, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. You wrote the A1 story of the Times this week about McConnell giving the senators what they want, an FBI investigation that goes on for another week; giving them the time to talk it through. Such a fragile nomination, yet McConnell seems to have got it across the finish line.

MR. HULSE: Yeah, fragile up to today with Lisa Murkowski, and we didn’t know what was going to happen with –

MR. COSTA: Senator from Alaska.

MR. HULSE: This is Mitch McConnell’s thing. He wants to populate the courts. This is now the second Trump nominee that he’ll be able to say that he put on the Court. And it’s interesting about Don McGahn, you have to remember Brett Kavanaugh wasn’t on Trump’s original list of nominees, and there was some machinations to get him onto that list because he’s a creature of Washington and that – Trump wasn’t maybe going to look that favorably on this. But, you know, this is a great victory for Mitch McConnell. He was certainly relieved after Susan Collins’ speech. And, you know, he gave her the shout-out and said this was an inspirational speech and one of the best speeches I’ve seen in the history of the Senate, because it saved him. Because if he was going to – the conservative community, as you know, is still a little suspicious of Mitch McConnell.

MR. COSTA: And let’s talk about that suspicion because the conservative community in the Senate, on the outside, they’re all watching Kavanaugh, a little rattled by what happened with his testimony. And before Senator Collins defended Judge Kavanaugh’s credentials on the Senate floor today, the judge, as Abby said, presented his own defense in The Wall Street Journal. In an op-ed he wrote he was, quote, “too emotional,” last week when senators questioned him and his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

He wrote, quote, “I know that my tone was sharp and I said a few things I should not have said.” He added, “Going forward, you can count on me to be the same kind of judge and person I have been for my entire 28-year legal career – hardworking, even-keeled, open-minded, independent, and dedicated to the Constitution and the public good.” So he’s writing that not for the audience of President Trump, Kelly, but for the moderate Republican senators, like Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Yet, Murkowski in the no column.

MS. O’DONNELL: It was a big, high-profile op-ed with a very limited audience. (Laughter.) And Lisa Murkowski of Alaska had also been pretty clear that she had issues that were very home-state. Often when we’re trying to understand someone’s vote, look to their home. And for her, the Affordable Care Act preexisting conditions, something very important in Alaska. And there were reasons to be concerned about that and his record.

And Native American indigenous people’s sovereignty, a federal lands issue. That does not come up in a lot of places, but in Alaska it matters. And it matters so much in her own history, because her write-in election save, one of the greatest comebacks. She’d been beaten by a Tea Party conservative. The voters in Alaska wrote in all the letters that spell out Murkowski. And many of the Alaskan indigenous people were among her most strong supporters. And so this was predictable. But she was pained. And she talked about believing that he’s a good man, but not the right man in this moment for the court.

MR. COSTA: What about the red state Democrats? You think about Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. One of her siblings said this week: She had to vote no because she needed to be able to look at herself in the mirror when she brushes her teeth.

MS. PARKER: Well, from the Republican side and the White House side, they were practically gleeful about the way this was playing out, because they recognized it was going to put a lot of these red state Democrats in an incredibly difficult situation. But I think the way she voted, and the sort of moral dilemma she seemed to face, gets at a lot of these issues. It wasn’t just about a nominee to the Supreme Court or a conservative judicial philosophy. What you had was issues of, you know, he said, she said, and temperament and alcohol abuse or lack thereof, and gender, and politics, and legacy all crashing up against this #MeToo era, which is rapidly changing and shifting. So these senators weren’t just considering one thing. They weren’t considering only do they believe Kavanaugh or do they believe Dr. Ford. But they were considering sort of the full spectrum of what does this vote mean for women? What does this vote mean for women who were victims of sexual assault? And it was all ripped into this very potent mix.

MR. COSTA: And it changes the court potentially for a generation to come, tilting it to the right.

MS. PHILLIP: Yeah, and that’s why the stakes are so high, especially for someone like Heitkamp. If her race were much closer – I think there’s a sense right now that her race is really spreading out. She’s losing. And if it were much closer, this would actually be a much more difficult decision for her. But as it were, if she’s going to lose, there’s probably a sense that she ought to make the morally right decision for her about where she wants the court to be going forward. But that’s why the stakes are so high for Democrats and Republicans right now.

This was the ballgame for Republicans. I think even if they had lost some political capital in this fight, it would have been worth it for someone like Mitch McConnell because you can’t get a do-over on a Supreme Court seat. The next time a seat comes up, it may or may not be in Trump’s term. We’ve already heard talk of if it’s in – it’s towards the end of Trump’s term it might stay open until the next election. This could be the last shot. And they needed to take it, because this is changing the court for an entire lifetime.

MS. O’DONNELL: Despite all the bruises and the battering that was involved in this, because it was painful for everyone. I think when you look at Heidi Heitkamp too, you’re looking at a woman in the Democratic Party who has a future in the Democratic Party. She may lose her seat, but she could easily be the attorney general of the United States under a Democratic president. She was the AG – she was the AG in her home state. And I don’t think you could survive in Democratic politics, especially as a woman, if you voted for Judge Kavanaugh. And so I think she made a choice that she can live with and one that, actually, I think, ensures a greater future for her.

MR. HULSE: She might take ag secretary, though. (Laughter.)

MS. O’DONNELL: She’d be good at that too, I’m sure. And Jeff Flake, who really brought about that moment where the additional week – which I think for many people helps to validate the process, although the investigation itself has been so attacked by those who don’t think it was fair or thorough enough. But he’s an interesting case, because he is a conservative to the core. Also, trying to bring humanity back to the Senate in the final months of his time. And yet, he ended up being a yes.

MR. COSTA: I felt like we were covering the hamlet of Arizona. Yet he always – as you said – he ends up at yes. Questions about the process, but a conservative –

MS. O’DONNELL: He looked so pained through the process too.

MR. COSTA: Oh, he did.

MR. HULSE: Then we have Joe Manchin, though.

MR. COSTA: Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia. Talk – so he comes on late.

MR. HULSE: He walked out late. He was waiting to see what happened, obviously. He seemed very tied to Susan Collins. In fact, he announced his yes vote for confirmation as she ended her speech. I think – I think for Joe Manchin that was a good vote for West Virginia.


MR. HULSE: Because this is – Trump is super-popular there. He’s running right now. This is very close to the election. I think he was in pretty good shape, honestly. But I look at this – if you game this out politically it was a smart vote. He’s a former governor too, and he’s – so he’s one of those people who believes in the executive’s right to make appointments.

MR. COSTA: Let’s go back to something Ashley talked about, which is President Trump at the rallies this week. Because last week President Trump said Dr. Ford’s testimony was compelling. But a few days later, he made the decision to mock her during a rally in Mississippi. Let’s take a listen.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I thought her testimony was very compelling. But certainly she was a very credible witness. She was very good in many respects.

How did you get home? I don’t remember. How’d you get there? I don’t remember. But I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember. (Laughter, jeers.) And a man’s life is in tatters. A man’s life is shattered.

MR. COSTA: The White House claimed the president wasn’t mocking Ford, just setting the record straight. A stunning turn of events to have President Trump kind of be contained in his message, and then just go right out there at a rally and go right at Dr. Ford. Was he giving cover for Republicans to be more aggressive in their messaging?

MS. PARKER: Well, I think what was more stunning was the contained president we saw. But I will say that moment – it gave a lot of agita to the Republican establishment. Even a number of Trump voters have said they don’t like that he said that. But what is so stunning to me is that if you talk to people in the president’s orbit – and this was not a strategic hit. It was the president sort of sensing a moment and going for it. But they think it as absolutely one of the most valuable and positive things he could have done to help push Judge Kavanaugh over the finish line.

And what they tell us, and they say he wasn’t mocking her. But they say that he basically pointed out what they argue are fair gaps in her memory, fair potential problems with her story. And in doing so, they move the focus and scrutiny away from Judge Kavanaugh’s youthful drinking and debauchery and onto her a little bit. And it sort of gave, whether tacitly or overtly, Republicans, allies in these outside groups, Republican senators, the sort of green light to go and be incredibly aggressive and shift that momentum. And that’s what we saw in these past few days until today’s vote.

MR. COSTA: Well, does that green light extend to the Democrats? Do they watch the president take this kind of message and say: The #MeToo movement, women voters nationally, are going to get up in arms about what’s happening as much as Republican voters have their anger up?

MS. PHILLIP: I think the dynamics are so divided along party lines that the president is doing something that he thinks is resonating with his voters. And he may very well be right about that. At this late stage, motivating Republicans to come out is his number-one job. And I think that’s what he was trying to do at that rally in Mississippi. And on the Democratic side, their momentum is already pretty high. Their enthusiasm is already pretty high. And I think this #MeToo moment only amplifies that. And it clarifies the issues around not just some of the policy issues, like health care, but the cultural issues that the Democrats want to run on.

But President Trump is – as Ashley said – giving – gave Republicans some key permission, not just in the Kavanaugh fight but toward November, to lean into some of these cultural issues and get their base really ginned up around the culture that they want to see in this country. And that’s going to be part of the recipe for November for them.

MR. HULSE: But I think the question for Republicans is, we’d seen this little uptick in enthusiasm, but does that now go away, because they got their win? People – voters, I hate to say, don’t typically go to reward you for the great things you did. (Laughter.) They go to punish you. And I think the Democrat – the strategists who were looking at that – this were saying to themselves and some of their colleagues were saying, you know, if he’s going to get on, let’s just get him on right now so we have some time for this to die down among Republicans while we fan the flames among our voters, so.

MS. O’DONNELL: And 30 days in Trump world is a lifetime in politics. (Laughter.) So to keep that energy up is going to be a big challenge. And some of the things the president said about Dr. Ford and the gaps, as the White House describes it, reinforces what people already think about the president. It blends into his sort of style and harshness and the rhetoric that he uses, so it was less of a risk for him, especially in the way that it has sort of given people a way to look at the argument differently. For Democrats, Dr. Ford will be a figure of importance for a long time to come, and she has certainly been harmed by this process but also has just an enormous well of goodwill that has come to her. They didn’t get the result that perhaps they wanted, although she was always careful to say it was not her choice to make whether he’d be on the Court or not.

MS. PARKER: In the White House, for the president doing that, the president’s allies would argue that in a way he’s the perfect boogeyman because no one expects him to be the trumpeter of the #MeToo movement. So he’s filling a very natural role and he’s sort of doing the bidding that no one else wants to do. And I went back, I re-watched it, I timed it; that riff, it was actually only 36 seconds, but it was the perfect tight, effective sort of prosecutorial case that could be replayed and replayed on cable news, and sort of fill that vacuum and provide Republicans with cover and make the White House’s case, and that is what Trump sort of intuitively understands so well as a former reality television star.

MS. PHILLIP: And one of the main lessons that we ought to take away from how it played out was that we did see the typical people like Flake and Collins saying I wouldn’t have said that, it was inappropriate, whatever, but ultimately that didn’t change the way they voted. This is the pattern. Republicans are able to compartmentalize the bad parts of Trump, in their view, and still do what they need to do to get Judge Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.

MR. COSTA: When you’re talking to senators – Republicans – and congressmen, are they talking about trade? I mean, that was the big issue earlier in the week, the president strikes this trade deal, the president with the economy, the jobs report. Or is it culture, grievance? Is that the way the tide’s turning as they’re making their case to voters?

MR. HULSE: I think they’re frustrated because I think that they’ve passed some bills. Their big opioid bill that they passed –

MS. O’DONNELL: Got no attention.

MR. HULSE: The trade deal, which, you know, they actually think is pretty good. This was a victory for the president, but it’s getting no attention. The tax bill is getting no attention. I think that they realize that some of these things they were hoping to carry them through the election aren’t resonating. Mitch McConnell said after the tax bill was passed if we can’t sell this in the next election, we shouldn’t be reelected. Well, he may find out that that is the case. They didn’t really have an opportunity to break through all this much louder din over Brett Kavanaugh, #MeToo, sexual assault, things that really do resonate with people. This has been talked about all over the country in all sorts of arenas. It is a constant topic of conversation. No one really talked about the new Mexican-Canada-USA trade deal.

MS. PHILLIP: Or the extraordinary economic news this morning, the, you know, unemployment rate –

MS. PARKER: Great jobs numbers, yeah.

MS. PHILLIP: – falling to half-century lows and great job numbers. I mean, this is a great economy, and President Trump is not getting credit for it. I mean, I think that’s pretty clear. The Republican Party is not getting credit for it. That has got to be very, very stressful for Republicans. But that’s why I do think this idea of culture driving Trump voters out is really important. I think the president understands that. He knows that he needs to speak to his voters not just on policy, but on other issues that he thinks coalesces them around him.

MR. COSTA: And he’s heading out to a big campaign run in the next few weeks.

MS. O’DONNELL: Oh my goodness, we are going to be so exhausted. (Laughter.) There will be so much travel with the president, and he is trying to drum up that support and get to those visceral issues you’re talking about. I do wonder, though, if West Virginia will be off the table now for the final 30 days.

MR. HULSE: Yeah, leave him alone.

MS. PHILLIP: Probably not.

MS. O’DONNELL: Leave Senator Manchin alone, perhaps. But we’ll see what happens with that, but he is going. And the one thing I find, too, is it’s never a direct flight to a Trump event. The places that he goes require a double hop, right?


MS. O’DONNELL: We’ve lived this. But he expects to be on the road most of October. He’s been raising money. Most of these events include a public event where there is the rally-type atmosphere and then preceding that there are usually some big-dollar trying to raise coffers for all of the candidates around the country, both House-level and Senate. We don’t always see that, with presidents campaigning for House races.

MR. HULSE: Right, he is going to work on some House races. I also see – think you’re seeing another strategy from the Republicans now that they have seemingly won this. They’re going to talk about this is how the Democrats would be if they’re in power, this is the kind of –

MR. COSTA: He keeps talking about the radical Democrats.

MR. HULSE: Right, these are the kind of actions that you’re going to see if they take over the House, they’re just going to be destructive and after us. So they’re hoping that that can keep the energy up.

MR. COSTA: All-out political war on Capitol Hill, on the campaign trail; we’ll be covering it all. We have to leave it there. Thanks, everybody, for joining us tonight.

Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Podcast. It’s available as video or audio on the Washington Week website at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek and also on the Apple podcast app.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us.

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