Again and again, President Trump was instructed not to do it. A cadre of advisers, confidants and lawmakers all urged him — implored him, really — not to personally attack the women who had accused Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault.
So he did it anyway.
Addressing thousands at a boisterous rally in Mississippi, Trump relied on his own visceral sense of the moment and mocked Christine Blasey Ford for gaps in her memory, directly impugning the accuser’s credibility.
Establishment Republicans initially reacted with horror. But Trump’s 36-second off-script jeremiad proved a key turning point toward victory for the polarizing nominee, White House officials and Kavanaugh allies said, turbocharging momentum behind Kavanaugh just as his fate appeared most in doubt.
Tuesday evening in Southhaven, Miss., Trump laid into Ford with the ruthlessness of an attack dog and the pacing of a stand-up comedian. The crowd roared with laughter and applause. Aides privately crowed as footage of the performance was played and replayed many times over, shifting the national discussion from scrutiny of Kavanaugh’s honesty and drinking habits to doubts about Ford’s memory. And in Washington, Republican senators — though they condemned Trump’s mockery of Ford — felt emboldened to aggressively demand Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which became a near-certainty Friday and looks to become official with a vote Saturday.
“As long as he was willing to go to the mat for him, it fortified probably people up here, too,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the chamber’s third-ranking Republican leader.
The three-week maelstrom — from when Ford first shared her story with The Washington Post to Saturday’s expected confirmation vote — fused the nation’s cultural reckoning over sexual assault with tribal politics, carrying ramifications not only for next month’s midterm elections but for the long-term identities of both political parties.
At the center, as always, was Trump, who used his bully pulpit to champion Kavanaugh and accused men everywhere. Initially restraining his combative impulses and deferring to the Senate on process, the president ultimately followed his own gut as if he were, in the description of one aide, “a strategic boogeyman.”
The result is likely to be, according to counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, “a crowning achievement of his presidency.”
“If people look at this as an apocalyptic fight, he’s the ultimate fighter who doesn’t give up, doesn’t give in and doesn’t back down, even if there’s an avalanche of criticism and vicious, vile reactions from the other side,” Conway said.