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Trump stays away from Senate Kavanaugh fight

President Donald Trump introduces U.S. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who stands with his family, as his Supreme Court nominee in the East Room of the White House on July 9. But Trump has stayed mostly behind the scenes as Kavanaugh’s nomination has encountered opposition. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As the Senate prepares for Thursday’s blockbuster hearing to decide the fate of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a key player has been missing from efforts to lobby undecided GOP senators — President Donald Trump.

More than a dozen Republican senators said in interviews Tuesday that they haven’t heard anything from Trump —and they think that’s just fine.

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John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican, said he was “not aware” of any personal outreach to senators who are undecided on Kavanaugh.

“It’s probably better to see him let the process play out. We’ve got members who want to come to their own conclusions, make their own decisions, and sometimes it’s better that happens independent of the White House,” Thune said.

“I have had no conversations with the president and I’ve never had any conversation with my staff that would indicate the involvement of the president,” added Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who is overseeing Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing.

That’s not to say that Trump hasn’t been following the Kavanaugh drama closely, as evidenced by his public statements and Twitter feed. In statements on Monday night and Tuesday, Trump blasted Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez — who have accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in high school and college, respectively. GOP leaders do not believe those statements have been particularly helpful.

During a Tuesday appearance at the United Nations General Assembly with Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez, Trump launched into a defense of Kavanaugh and called the allegations against him “unsubstantiated.”

“Charges come up from 36 years ago that are totally unsubstantiated? I mean, you as watching this, as the president of a great country – Colombia – you must say, ‘How is this possible?’ Thirty-six years ago? Nobody ever knew about it? Nobody ever heard about it? And now a new charge comes up,” Trump said.

“And [Ramirez] said, ‘well it might not be him’ and there were gaps and she said she was totally inebriated and she was all messed up. And she doesn’t know it was him, but it might’ve been him. ‘Oh gee, let’s not make him a Supreme Court judge because of that.’ This is a con game being played by the Democrats.”

But Trump has refrained from lobbying GOP senators directly in a bid to save his high-court nominee. To stay updated on the GOP’s own internal drama, the president’s been in constant contact to with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who serves on the Judiciary Committee, according to White House officials and GOP aides.

But, for now, Trump is leaving everything in the hands of McConnell, trusting that the Kentucky Republican — the man most responsible for putting Trump in a position to name a second high-court nominee — will get the job done.

This is the same pattern that Trump has been forced to use at other critical moments for his legislative agenda on Capitol Hill, even with Republican control of both chambers. While Trump prides himself on his negotiating skills, he’s had his greatest successes with Congress — passage of a massive tax cuts bill or the confirmation of his previous Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, when he takes a hands-off approach.

Conversely, Trump’s biggest legislative defeat — the failure to repeal Obamacare — came when the president was most directly involved in the legislative process. Trump’s heavy-handed whipping efforts on that bill with Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) backfired miserably, and congressional aides said the president was not at all helpful in creating caucus unity.

Chuck Grassley

With the tax bill and the Gorsuch nomination, a different dynamic played out. White House aides and Republican lawmakers managed to keep the president at arm’s length while hammering out details of the legislation, in the case of the tax bill, and ensuring that Gorsuch had the votes to be confirmed — while allowing Trump to gallop in at the end and claim credit.

There are other factors for Trump’s cautious approach on Kavanaugh. A president who was accused of mistreating women before he came to the Oval Office isn’t going to have lot of credibility when it comes to a nominee facing the same accusations.

In addition, some of the key Senate GOP players in the Kavanaugh drama — Murkowski, Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker — have had their own run-ins with Trump during the past two years and aren’t afraid of bucking him again. Pressure from Trump might be the worst thing that could happen right now, GOP senators privately admit.

“Hell no!” said one Republican when asked whether Trump should begin calling rank-and-file Senate Republicans. “Let Mitch do it.”

This goes beyond the tense relationship between Trump White House and Senate Republicans. It extends also to the relationship between Trump and the prominent legal conservatives, who have delivered him the biggest victories of his presidency — but who have always been strange bedfellows.

Trump has from the outset delegated judicial nominations to the Federalist Society and Republican lawmakers. What began with a shortlist of potential Supreme Court nominees vetted by the conservative legal organization and unveiled during the campaign, a successful attempt to win the votes of skeptical Republicans, has continued two years into the Trump presidency.

A name placard for Brett Kavanaugh

Should the Kavanaugh nomination fail, that arrangement could easily dissolve. Trump may blame McConnell, Grassley, “fake news” and everyone else for the defeat.

However, if Kavanaugh is confirmed — as McConnell predicted on Tuesday — Trump will be able to step in and claim the glory once again.

“I don’t think he’s interfering at all with the Senate’s work. At least I haven’t seen it,” noted Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah.). “He certainly has an interest in weighing in, there’s no question. I have no trouble if he does, but I think it’d be better for him if he didn’t.”

GOP Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia — both of whom say Thursday’s hearing will determine whether they can still support Kavanaugh – said Trump has not spoken to them about the nomination.

Rubio said the president is “probably focused on the committee first.”

“I haven’t heard anything from the White House,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) “Of course, I want hear what Dr. Ford says.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) hasn’t received any contact from the White House either.

“I never know, so I just answer all my calls,” Isakson joked of the president’s tendency to call senators at all hours. “But it hasn’t happened yet.”

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