Trump's attack on Kavanaugh's accuser creates a nightmare scenario for the GOP

Key Points
  • The president shifts into full-blown attack mode against a woman who alleges that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school.
  • But the prospect of Trump on the warpath against Christine Blasey Ford creates a nightmare scenario for Republicans in Congress.
  • Republicans "had a strategy, which was to keep [Trump] under wraps," says a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. They "don't have a strategy" anymore.
President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, September 20, 2018. 
Mike Segar | Reuters

After a week of reportedly taking the advice of his White House aides and treading carefully around sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump on Friday appeared to have had enough.

With Kavanaugh's confirmation on the ropes and the judge's support among voters plummeting, the president shifted into full-blown attack mode against Kavanaugh's alleged victim, Christine Blasey Ford.

"I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents," he wrote on Twitter Friday. "I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!"

Blasey Ford was 15 years old at the time, and she has since said she didn't tell anyone about the alleged attack, not even her parents, until decades later.

The White House has so far declined to comment on Trump's tweets attacking Ford, or to answer questions about how they will help to further its monthslong effort to get Kavanaugh confirmed to the Supreme Court.

But the prospect of Trump on the warpath against Ford has created a nightmare scenario for Republicans in Congress.

Damage control

Already facing long odds and historical headwinds in November, the GOP will need to win over moderate Republican women and independent voters if the party hopes to keep control of the House, and to a lesser extent, the Senate.

Now Trump has put many of the most vulnerable Republicans in Congress in a nearly impossible situation.

Trump steps up Kavanaugh defense as 'mistaken identity' theory shot down
Trump steps up Kavanaugh defense as 'mistaken identity' theory shot down

Republicans "don't have a strategy" anymore, said Michael Volkov, formerly counsel on the Judiciary Committee to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "They had a strategy, which was to keep [Trump] under wraps," he said in an interview. "I think Trump just couldn't help himself from becoming the center of attention."

But while the White House hunkered down on Friday, the top Republican in Congress sought to reassure conservatives that everything would be OK.

"Keep the faith. Don't get rattled by all of this. We're gonna plow right through it and do our job," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told attendees at the annual Values Voters conference.

"You've watched the fight, you've watched the tactics. But here's what I want to tell you. In the very near future, Judge Kavanaugh will be on the United States Supreme Court," McConnell said.

Still, as Ford continued to negotiate the terms of her potential testimony before the Senate next week, McConnell appeared unable to stop Trump and other prominent conservatives from launching increasingly harsh and desperate-sounding attacks on Ford. One of the Kavanaugh's allies pushed a theory, rejected by Ford and criticized by several conservatives, that the accuser mistook the identity of her attacker and blamed Kavanaugh when the real culprit could have been one of his classmates.

And the longer Kavanaugh's confirmation remains in limbo, the greater the risk that Trump will say something to further damage the Republican Party's brand among female voters.

Alienating women voters

Case in point: Trump's argument that if Ford's sexual assault had been "bad enough" then she would have reported it to police.

By choosing this line of attack, the president did more than merely undermine the severity of what Ford says was a violent and traumatic experience. Trump also ignored a broader reality about sexual violence, which is that the vast majority of rapes and attempted rapes are never reported to the police.

According to the Department of Justice's most recent crime statistics, rape and sexual assault are less likely than any other category of violent crime to be reported to police. In 2016, the department estimated that only 23 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported.

In a country where 27 percent of women in one recent survey reported having survived a sexual assault, Trump risks alienating an enormous bloc of voters.

Republicans are also acutely aware of Trump's long history of defending powerful men accused of sexual misconduct and of attacking their accusers. In 2017, when Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore faced multiple credible allegations of sexual misconduct with minors, Trump came to Moore's defense. It's a strategy the president has honed over decades, during which he has denied various allegations from at least a dozen women of sexual misconduct up to and including assault.

Cracks in the GOP's red wall

The more vicious the attacks against Ford become, said Volkov, the harder it will be for Republicans in Congress and the White House to present a unified front going into a possible hearing next week. The GOP holds a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate; two Republican defections would likely sink Kavanaugh's confirmation.

Rod Rosenstein suggested secretly taping Trump, says NYT
Rod Rosenstein suggested secretly taping Trump, says NYT

Within hours of Trump's tweets on Friday, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a key Republican swing vote for Kavanaugh, had already decried the president's tweet. "I was appalled by the president's tweet," Collins said at an event in Portland. She called Trump's attacks on Ford "completely inappropriate and wrong."

The divide was also evident at the Federalist Society, a conservative Washington think tank that wields enormous influence over Trump's judicial nominations, including over his two Supreme Court nominations so far, those of now-Justice Neil Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.

I was appalled by the president's tweet.
Sen. Susan Collins

At a panel discussion Friday to preview the Supreme Court's upcoming term, panelists avoided any mention of the president's morning tweets. And even though Ford is now the key figure in Kavanaugh's confirmation battle, her name was not uttered once during the nearly two-hour event.

Many of the audience members, however, sounded more like Trump than Collins. CNBC heard one guest lament that the next thing Democrats are going to do is blame Republican nominees for being pedophiles in kindergarten.

This widening schism between Trump and establishment Republicans over how to best help Kavanaugh is likely to be on full display at a major public event like a Senate hearing, Volkov said.

"Republicans are not as good in high-profile, drama-based scenes" like contentious Senate hearings, he said. "We used to always say that the Democrats were much better organized. The Republicans, it's harder to get them all together."

Volkov predicted that a hearing with Ford and Kavanaugh would be no different.

"Mark my words. I don't think he'll be confirmed," he said. "And then there's going to be hell to pay."