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Kavanaugh tries unprecedented move to save his chance for the Supreme Court

Updated 3:32 PM ET, Tue September 25, 2018

(CNN) - Brett Kavanaugh looked less like a Supreme Court justice than an ordinary political candidate whose campaign is on the skids, mired in scandal as he battles to keep his hopes of high office alive.

With his wife Ashley by his side, Kavanaugh seized control of his own defense against allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct that are threatening to overwhelm his hopes of joining the bench.

"I am not going anywhere," Kavanaugh told Fox News in an interview on Monday night.

The joint appearance by the Kavanaughs was a startling moment, unprecedented in the history of the Supreme Court confirmation process, and may end up registering a new threshold in the politicization of the institution he hopes to join.

By offering an interview, Kavanaugh shed the public reticence normally expected of a senior member of the judiciary in order to slug it out in the political trenches.

He pleaded for a "fair process" at a potentially pivotal moment for a nomination that could change the path of American jurisprudence and deliver conservatives of a long-dreamed of majority on the court.

A big television interview has long been a weapon in a political consultant's political arsenal. And Kavanaugh learned from some of best as one of the President's men in the George W. Bush White House.

On Monday night, he did what political candidates do when they are in trouble. He risked an audacious play to reset a damaging narrative that threatens his viability.

He was also getting his retaliation in first, since his original accuser Christine Blasey Ford will testify before him at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday that will be critical to his chances of reaching the Court.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley announced Tuesday that he had hired an outside female counsel who is an expert in sex crimes prosecution to conduct the questioning for the Republican side in the hearing. Democratic senators will ask questions themselves.

Part of Kavanaugh's goal in his interview appeared to be laying the groundwork for the hearing.

Understanding that perception is everything in politics, Kavanaugh was also sending a message to Washington, President Donald Trump's grassroots supporters who watch Fox News, and any wavering Republican senators who might wonder if he's worth the fight.

By choosing the President's favorite network he was unlikely to change any minds on the left. But by playing into the intersection of politics and entertainment that has been a hallmark of this administration, Kavanaugh sent a signal of stubborn resolve to Trump himself.

Kavanaugh was calm and coherent, despite the embarrassing nature of the allegations, though he lacked the glib assurance of politicians who usually use television interviews as a get-out-of-jail card and appeared emotionally wrung out.

He sidestepped some of the most difficult questions -- on whether there should be an investigation into his past, for instance -- and he will get a far rougher ride from Democrats who question his integrity and professed reverence for truth on Thursday.

But the message is clear: This is a man with stomach for the fight, who refuses to be destroyed by the liberal attack machine. He wanted everyone to think there is no blood in the water.

"I want a fair process where I can defend my integrity. I know I'm telling the truth. I know my lifelong record. I'm not going to let false accusations drive me out of this process," Kavanaugh said. "I have faith in God and I have faith in the fairness of the American people."

The President appeared to approve, using his Twitter account to promote the interview ahead of time, between meetings with other world leaders at the United Nations.

"This is an outstanding family who must be treated fairly!" Trump tweeted.

Kavanaugh's backers believe the interview was a success.

One source told CNN's Sarah Westwood that the nominee and his wife "more than accomplished what they set out to do" in that they came across as "sincere and sympathetic."

"There comes a point when you can only sit there and take it for so long, and they showed the public they're real people -- not just names -- who've been dragged through the mud," the source said.

Kavanaugh portrays himself as the victim

By taking such a proactive approach, Kavanaugh was making a gamble that reflects the delicacy of his position ahead of Thursday's hearing.

In effect, he was turning the tables on his accusers, portraying himself and not those who he is accused of wronging as the victim.

"I'm a good person, I've led a good life," Kavanaugh said.

His approach however might be a risky one in the #MeToo era and could alienate some women voters at a time when the Republican Party is battling what could turn out to be a historic gender gap. It may also not sit well at a time in which society is offering more deference to women who come forward with long-suppressed allegations against powerful men.

But Kavanaugh, who styles himself as a champion of women, portrayed himself as a cruelly wronged family man, and his wife spoke of the toll the political firestorm over his private life has taken on their two young daughters.

"They know Brett and they know the truth," said Ashley Kavanaugh, who also worked in the Bush White House. "Just remember, you know your Dad," she said, paraphrasing her advice to her girls.

To Kavanaugh's supporters, he has been the unfair target of allegations that are over three decades old, that were never prosecuted at the time, and that appear to lack corroboration.

To those favorably disposed towards him, his Fox News appearance, and an earlier letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday vehemently laying out his defense will ring true.

And while he was robust in his own defense, Kavanaugh was careful not to attack the motives of Ford herself.

"I'm not questioning and have not questioned that perhaps Dr. Ford was sexually assaulted by someone in some place. But what I know is I've never sexually assaulted anyone," he said.

Echoes of the Clintons

The historical precedents for Kavanaugh's big move were political rather than legal.

Ironically, for someone who worked for former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, Kavanaugh's Fox News interview recalled the famous "60 Minutes" appearance of Bill and Hillary Clinton when the future President was accused by Gennifer Flowers of an alleged affair.

Ashley Kavanaugh was less political than the soon-to-be first lady in 1992, but the optics of their appearance sitting side-by-side were similar.

And if the judge is eventually confirmed, Kavanaugh's wife might have a similar result -- saving her husband's judicial career just as Clinton saved her husband's political career.

It also carried a historical echo of Richard Nixon's 1952 "Checkers" speech when the vice presidential nominee saved his spot on Dwight Eisenhower's presidential ticket by fighting off corruption allegations while portraying himself as a wronged and humble family man.

That was one of the first occasions when the power of television to shift a political narrative became clear, a device used by Kavanaugh on Monday night. It's also a form understood by Bill Shine, the White House communications czar who is a former Fox executive.

Court not above politics

But while Kavanaugh's strategy might work in the short term, its impact will linger.

A hardball struggle to drive his confirmation through by the slimmest of margins is certain to deepen partisan feelings towards the court that have developed over the last 20 years.

Justices, with their lifetime appointments and lofty reputations have managed to retain a mystique above the political fray in their marble columned refuge opposite the US Capitol.

Even as that image has frayed, it's hard to imagine someone like Justice Elena Kagan or Samuel Alito going on television in such an overt political appearance. Television cameras are not even allowed in the court amid concern its dignity could be impeached.

Perhaps, Kavanaugh is doing everyone a favor by dropping the pretense that the court is above politics. After all, many of its high-profile cases are decided by partisan majorities on the most controversial issues in America, such as guns, religion, climate change and abortion.


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