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Trump is stepping in to try to save Kavanaugh’s nomination. What could go wrong?

Republicans are increasingly embracing the president’s ugly, attack dog tactics.

Trump and Brett Kavanaugh
Trump and Kavanaugh on July 9, 2018.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court chances are in doubt — and President Donald Trump is stepping in to try to salvage his chances.

According to a new CNN report, Trump has concluded that “he must personally take charge of defending his embattled nominee” ahead of Thursday’s scheduled hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he’ll be asked about sexual assault allegations.

Because this is Trump, “defending” Kavanaugh means attacking anyone who’s against Kavanaugh — the women accusing him, Democrats, and lawyer Michael Avenatti (who’s representing one of Kavanaugh’s three accusers). And though top Republicans initially professed to be open-minded about the allegations, they’re increasingly embracing Trump’s ugly tactics as things get worse for Kavanaugh.

Take Kavanaugh himself. So far, he’s tried to stay above the fray, professing his innocence without directly attacking his accusers. “I am not questioning and have not questioned that perhaps Dr. Ford at some point in her life was sexually assaulted by someone in some place,” he said in an interview on Fox News. “But what I know is I’ve never sexually assaulted anyone in high school or at any time in my life.”

But after Avenatti announced new allegations from Julie Swetnick on Wednesday, the White House released a statement from Kavanaugh that struck a notably different — and Trumpier — tone: “This is ridiculous and from the Twilight Zone. I don’t know who this is and this never happened.”

Then there’s Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who sits on the Judiciary Committee and frequently goes golfing with the president. When Christine Blasey Ford first came forward, Graham said he “would gladly listen to what she has to say.” In the days since, though, Graham has started staunchly defending Kavanaugh and has particularly taken aim at Swetnick’s claims.

Trump was surprisingly restrained about the allegations for most of last week, but that ended when he snidely suggested that if Kavanaugh truly had assaulted Ford during high school, “charges would have been immediately filed.”

Then this week, the president said that the second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, was “totally inebriated” during the alleged incident and her story couldn’t be relied on. And on Wednesday afternoon, in response to Swetnick’s claims, he went after Avenatti:

Close watchers of the president’s Twitter feed found this significant because Trump had, rather astonishingly, managed to refrain from ever tweeting about Avenatti before this.

Avenatti has been omnipresent on cable television and on Twitter — the president’s two favorite mediums — in the six months since he started representing Stormy Daniels, who says she was paid hush money to stay quiet about an alleged affair with Trump. He’s repeatedly attacked Trump with insult-laden provocations straight out of the president’s own attack dog playbook. Yet all this time, Trump had studiously ignored Avenatti, evidently trying to avoid granting him more attention by responding.

Now, with Kavanaugh’s nomination in jeopardy, the president has finally decided to take on Avenatti — perhaps out of desperation, or perhaps because it’s more politically beneficial to attack him than it is to attack Swetnick. (Avenatti, who is considering running for president in 2020, eagerly responded.)

In any case, all this matches the playbook for responding to sexual misconduct allegations that Trump reportedly laid out to a friend, as described in Bob Woodward’s book Fear:

Trump gave some private advice to a friend who had acknowledged some bad behavior toward women. Real power is fear. It’s all about strength. Never show weakness. You’ve always got to be strong. Don’t be bullied. There is no choice.

“You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women,” he said. “If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead. That was a big mistake you made. You didn’t come out guns blazing and just challenge them. You showed weakness. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to push back hard. You’ve got to deny anything that’s said about you. Never admit.”

Trump, of course, has also been accused of sexual assault by several women.