Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, would like to correct a misunderstanding. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Thursday night, Kavanaugh promises to be an impartial justice, not the liberal-baiting flamethrower he played in his opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. We’ve seen this from Kavanaugh before: rage, animus, and political warfare, followed by a scramble to clean things up. The cleanup is an act. The real Kavanaugh is what we saw in the committee hearing: a congenital partisan.
In his op-ed, Kavanaugh argues that his angry speech to the committee was a natural response to false accusations of sexual assault:
At times, my testimony—both in my opening statement and in response to questions—reflected my overwhelming frustration at being wrongly accused, without corroboration, of horrible conduct completely contrary to my record and character. My statement and answers also reflected my deep distress at the unfairness of how this allegation has been handled.
I was very emotional last Thursday, more so than I have ever been. I might have been too emotional at times. I know that my tone was sharp, and I said a few things I should not have said. I hope everyone can understand that I was there as a son, husband and dad. I testified with five people foremost in my mind: my mom, my dad, my wife, and most of all my daughters.
This explanation has two problems. One is that it accounts for Kavanaugh’s anger but not for the starkly partisan language in which he vented that anger. The second problem is that his tirade at the hearing, unlike his behavior with Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and other women, is on video. We can play it back and check it against his attempts to whitewash it. Here’s what Kavanaugh told the committee on Sept. 27:
Since my nomination in July, there’s been a frenzy on the left to come up with something—anything—to block my confirmation. Shortly after I was nominated, the Democratic Senate leader said he would, quote, “oppose me with everything he’s got.” A Democratic senator on this committee publicly referred to me as “evil.” … Another Democratic senator on this committee said, quote, “Judge Kavanaugh is your worst nightmare.” A former head of the Democratic National Committee said, quote, “Judge Kavanaugh will threaten the lives of millions of Americans for decades to come.” … The behavior of several of the Democratic members of this committee at my hearing a few weeks ago was an embarrassment.
That’s seven attacks on Democrats and “the left” in less than two minutes. But Kavanaugh was just getting started:
When I did at least OK enough at the hearings that it looked like I might actually get confirmed, a new tactic was needed. Some of you were lying in wait and had it ready. This first allegation was held in secret for weeks by a Democratic member of this committee and by staff. It would be needed only if you couldn’t take me out on the merits. … This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.
“Left-wing” groups, “the Clintons,” “anger about President Trump”—the whole diatribe was political. It sounded like Hillary Clinton’s 1998 complaint about a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband—a rant worthy of a politician, not a Supreme Court justice. Kavanaugh’s speech also echoed Clarence Thomas’ opening statement to the Judiciary Committee in 1991, after Thomas was accused of sexual harassment. But in that statement, Thomas never uttered the words “left” or “Democratic.” Kavanaugh used those words 11 times.
Suppose Kavanaugh is innocent of all allegations of sexual misconduct. In that case, he has every right to be angry. He might well respond, in the language of his op-ed, “as a son, husband and dad.” But what does being a son, husband, or dad have to do with “the left” or the Democratic Party? Why would a man who claims that he was thinking about his parents, his wife, and his daughters rail against “the Clintons” and “anger about President Trump”?
Many of Kavanaugh’s supporters say he was right to call out Democrats, since Democrats had attacked his nomination. But there’s a difference between rebuking specific politicians and repeatedly targeting them as a group. When you aim your rhetoric at a group, you reveal something about yourself. Kavanaugh talked about the perfidy of Democrats the way Trump talks about the criminality of immigrants.
This isn’t a one-time outburst. In 1998, while working for independent counsel Ken Starr, Kavanaugh wrote an angry memo against President Clinton. Kavanaugh urged Starr to “make [Clinton’s] pattern of revolting behavior clear—piece by painful piece.” Afterward, according to colleagues, Kavanaugh “immediately regretted” his explosion. Kavanaugh has also behaved violently at least twice after drinking, according to witnesses and a police report. There’s the Kavanaugh who apologizes, and then there’s the Kavanaugh who keeps doing things that require apologies.
Kavanaugh’s partisanship runs deep. He worked for Starr against Clinton. Then he worked for George W. Bush in the Florida recount in 2000. Then he worked for Bush in the White House counsel’s office and as staff secretary. He worked with Republican Senate staffers to use material stolen from Democrats, then claimed he had no idea the material was stolen. As a judge, Kavanaugh keeps finding ways to justify what Republicans want. Sometimes he reins in federal agencies, arguing that Congress gets to make policy. Sometimes he reins in Congress. Sometimes he defers to the president, sometimes he doesn’t. His opinions line up less with judicial principles than with Republican preferences.
Kavanaugh’s written draft of his statement to the Judiciary Committee, submitted on Sept. 26, was nonpartisan. It spoke of “a frenzy to come up with something—anything … that will block a vote on my nomination.” But while Ford was testifying on the morning of Sept. 27, Kavanaugh, by his own account, rewrote his remarks instead of watching her testimony. After the word “frenzy,” he inserted the phrase “on the left.” And before the words “grotesque and obvious character assassination,” he inserted “anger about President Trump,” “revenge on behalf of the Clintons,” and “left-wing opposition groups.” These revisions weren’t the work of a man defending his honor. They were carefully crafted appeals to political tribalism.
Republicans have the votes to put Kavanaugh on the court, disregarding objections to his partisan tirade. By doing so, they would essentially affirm that appointing justices is just another way of using and consolidating power. Democrats, in turn, might respond at their next opportunity by adding another justice or two to the court. If that happens, you’ll have to forgive the overreach by the left. Sometimes people get emotional.
One more thing
If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus