On this week’s Political Gabfest, David Plotz, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson talked to the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus about her new book, Supreme Ambition: Brett Kavanaugh and the Conservative Takeover. They discussed what it was like to receive a negative review from the president (in the form of a tweet, naturally), former Justice Anthony Kennedy’s role in Kavanaugh’s nomination, and how Kavanaugh managed to survive Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
David Plotz: We are joined today by beloved Gabfest regular Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post. Ruth has a new book out. It’s called Supreme Ambition: Brett Kavanaugh and the Conservative Takeover. It’s already been reviewed widely and brilliantly, including by the president himself: “The Ruth Marcus book,” he tweeted, “is a badly written and reseached disaster. So many incorrect facts. Fake news, just like the @washingtonpost!” Congratulations on that five-star review, Ruth.
Did that tweet do anything for sales? And why did your book get under the president’s skin?
Ruth Marcus: It’s very interesting that the book got under the president’s skin, because at the time he declared it “badly written and reseached,” it was not yet publicly available for him not to read. And, it was also a surprise that it got under his skin, because in a sense the book is about Donald Trump’s greatest triumph, which is his ability to reshape the federal judiciary generally, and to finally achieve the conservative dream of seizing control pretty firmly of the Supreme Court. So I think he should have embraced it. But it did help with some sales. And I was particularly struck by his use of the word reseached, because I thought it rhymed with something that might’ve been on the president’s mind.
Emily Bazelon: You report that when Neil Gorsuch [joined the Supreme Court] in 2017, Justice Kennedy requested a private meeting with the president so that he could put forward Brett Kavanaugh as a future nominee. What do we make of this? Is it perfectly fine that Kennedy is making this suggestion? Is there something quid pro quo–esque?
Essentially Kennedy is suggesting, “Maybe you should consider another former clerk of mine.” Since Gorsuch and Kavanaugh both clerked for Kennedy. “And maybe that will make me more amenable to stepping down.”
Marcus: OK, about the Kennedy intervention. It was a really, really interesting moment from the White House point of view. They would do really whatever it took to make Justice Kennedy comfortable in thinking that if he stepped down, his seat would be in capable and responsible hands. One way they did that was by nominating Justice Gorsuch, who had been a clerk, but not quite a favorite clerk of Justice Kennedy’s. Then comes the Gorsuch swearing-in. Justice Kennedy asks for a few moments with the president, and he mentioned, “Hey, there is somebody who’s not on your Supreme court list, who’s a former clerk of mine, who you should really consider. This guy Brett Kavanaugh.”
Of course, the president had heard of Kavanaugh and had refused to have him on his list, primarily because he was viewed by the president as a “Bushie.” Judge Kavanaugh, now Justice Kavanaugh, had not only worked for President George W. Bush, had not only been nominated to the federal bench by George W. Bush, but he had actually married George W.
Bush’s secretary, who was something like a surrogate daughter to the Bushes. So, he was the ultimate Bushie swamp creature, and Trump really didn’t want to have any of it. But once Justice Kennedy made this suggestion, once they were really eager to get Justice Kennedy dislodged from that seat so they could fill it with their own person, the president started to say, “Hey, who’s this Brett Kavanaugh guy?” Lo and behold, just a few months after that, Brett Kavanaugh’s name turns up on a list, unveiled on the very day of a Federalist Society convention in November.
John Dickerson: Just on the list point, explain to people why that was so notable with respect to the timing and why that was so important for Trump.
Marcus: The president had honestly been thinking about it and raising it with people beforehand, to do this very unusual thing of coming up with a list. Because only a public list would really satisfy social conservative, evangelical voters, that they could trust this thrice married, once abortion rights–supporting New York former Democrat named Donald Trump with the incredible power of filling a Supreme Court seat.
Plotz: When I think back on Brett Kavanaugh, the No. 1 thing I think about is Christine Blasey Ford. Looking back at that, what is your sense about why, after this incredibly persuasive testimony about a sexual assault that she said Brett Kavanaugh committed against her, why did Kavanaugh survive and pass through so easily?
Marcus: I don’t think he would call it easily. I think he would call it painfully. But he got through with a vote or two to spare. I think the answer to the question is very clear, and it’s really embodied in the title of this book. It’s called Supreme Ambition, not just because it’s about Brett Kavanaugh’s ambition, which really appeared at a remarkably young age, shortly after he graduated from law school. That’s his ambition. But the book is about a greater ambition, which is the thwarted for 30 years ambition that goes back to the failed nomination of Robert Bork.
It goes back to the significant disappointment that Bork’s eventual replacement, Justice Kennedy, was for conservatives. To the huge disappointment that Justice David Souter, named by George H.W. Bush, was for conservatives. And the conservative determination that these gaffes of the past, the moments they had squandered, would not be repeated again. So that this was their moment to finally get the fifth vote on the court. They were absolutely determined that it would not be denied them. And so when Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination ran into trouble, that might have led a different president or a different Senate in a different time to abandon him and look for an alternative. They were going to do whatever it took, because as Chuck Grassley’s chief nominations counsel told me, Kavanaugh had become too big to fail.
Bazelon: It seems to me that there’s a connection between the ambition you’re talking about for Kavanaugh’s nomination, and Mitch McConnell’s genius play to stop Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for Antonin Scalia’s seat. This recognition, increasingly powerful in the Republican Party, that these norms and niceties that have allowed the American government to function and had some bipartisan support are just not worth it. Voters don’t care about them. They’re not going to stop Republicans from winning elections. And so, we’re just going to ram our people and our goals through. Is that part of what was going on here?
Marcus: I think it’s absolutely part of what was going on here. And I think it has a current-day, still-unfolding analogue in the impeachment proceedings, where there’s not a lot of willingness on the part of Republicans to grapple with the significance and seriousness of the underlying facts, and to have a debate on the merits about what does and does not, if anything does ever, rise to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor.
Mitch McConnell is a very important figure in this whole story, because he is behind the scenes, pushing Trump to come out with the darn list already, because he knew it was going to be a motivating force for his voters. And the thing that he cares about the most is maintaining his Senate majority. So, it’s this ruthlessness that we saw both with the theft of the Merrick Garland seat on the Supreme Court and with getting Kavanaugh across the finish line.
I think it’s important to understand the mindset on the other side. Republicans and conservatives will look back to the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas hearings and the last-minute nature of those allegations. They’ll look to the last-minute nature of how the Christine Blasey Ford allegations against Justice Kavanaugh surface. And they will say, as Brett Kavanaugh did in that incredibly volcanic testimony, that this was a partisan smear campaign. And in the end, Democrats would do whatever it took to try to stop him. There is a conviction on both sides that the other side is ruthless.
I think it’s completely correct that both sides would try to do what it takes to achieve their aim. The reality is that Republicans, after having lost Bork, have just gotten so much better at it than Democrats have. And through Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society, and the incredible sums of money that he’s able to generate in support of these judicial nominees, they have the architecture and the funding to get the job done.
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