The Media's Mixed Signals: How Trump got to Brett Kavanaugh

In the end, President Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court was the man the media declared the front-runner from the beginning—before the handicapping spun out of control.

Brett Kavanaugh was always eminently qualified, a former Anthony Kennedy clerk, a former White House official, a federal appeals court judge in Washington for a dozen years. And, perhaps most important to Trump, a man of solid conservative credentials.

We may never know whether the president was working through his doubts while weighing other contenders, or simply trying to stir up some suspense to keep the media and the public tuned in. But whether it was head over heart, or a series of head fakes, Kavanaugh was always the D.C. establishment’s insider favorite.

And now he becomes the instant target of the Democrats and liberal precincts of the media who would give anything to derail this nomination.

In his East Room rollout, Trump hailed the Yale Law School graduate as a “judge’s judge,” a teacher’s son who still finds time to tutor students.

Kavanaugh, who said his mother became one of the few women prosecutors at the time, insisted that judges “must interpret the law, not make the law,” and interpret the Constitution “as written.” He also said he is part of a “vibrant Catholic community” and serves meals to the homeless through Catholic Charities. (MSNBC's Chris Matthews immediately noted "he comes from my parish, Blessed Sacrament." It's a small town.)

The process—the steady buildup to a prime-time show, fueled by tantalizing and sometimes conflicting leaks—spoke volumes about the Trumpian style and the voracious media appetite for every tidbit.

For many days, the press touted Kavanaugh, one of four appeals court finalists, as the man to beat, and another, Amy Coney Barrett, as the likely alternative if Trump wanted to pick a woman and wage a culture war.

So there were numerous stories on the weaknesses and drawbacks of both of them, which seemed to knock them down a peg, given how closely the president follows the coverage.

Kavanaugh, who worked for Ken Starr on the Clinton investigation and also for the Bush White House, was deemed vulnerable over the long paper trail from those jobs and his tenure on the bench. The president, said the New York Times, “was said to be struggling to get past Judge Kavanaugh’s connection to the Bush family. Mr. Trump savaged Jeb Bush during the 2016 primary, and the president has remained suspicious about the Bushes.”

What’s more, the Washington Post said, Trump has “tracked criticism of Kavanaugh from some social conservatives who see his rulings on health care and abortion as lacking ideological zeal.”

By Monday morning, the Times was reporting “fresh interest” in Thomas Hardiman, who had an influential booster: Maryanne Trump Barry, the president’s sister and a fellow judge on the court in Philadelphia. And other outlets stressed reporting that Mitch McConnell, with only one vote to spare, told Trump that the easiest to confirm would be Hardiman and Raymond Kethledge.

“At various times,” the Post said, “Kavanaugh, Barrett and Kethledge have been seen as the leading candidates.” Now maybe that’s because the president was talking things through with his advisers, and maybe because the press had such a narrow glimpse of what was going down, based on which sources were willing to talk.

Politico, for instance, said Barrett’s interview with Trump had gone “poorly,” seeming to knock her to the back of the pack. But then the Times said Trump “has also said positive things to associates about Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a staunch social conservative, the people familiar with the process said. He spent part of Sunday at his club with the Fox News host Sean Hannity, who favors Judge Barrett.”

Barrett had been hit by a barrage of articles questioning whether her devout Catholic faith could influence her rulings (which Dianne Feinstein raised at her confirmation hearing last year), as well as whether she’s less wedded to precedent and thus more likely to overturn Roe v. Wade. Plus, she’s been a federal judge for less than a year.

Trump is a gut player when it comes to reading people. “The only judge among the four whom the president appeared to lose much of his interest in was Raymond M. Kethledge,” the Times said. “People close to the process said the president had found him likable but comparatively dull.” Was that the kiss of death?

But wait! Kethledge “really hit it off” with Trump, a Republican close to the White House told Politico. And the judge was getting an “11th-hour push” as a consensus choice of conservatives.

So if Kavanaugh was said to be fading, were things looking good for Hardiman, who was barely mentioned in the earlier stories?

Trump liked the fact that he was the first in his family to go to college and helped pay his tuition by driving a taxi, according to the Times. And Hardiman was also the runner-up last year when Trump picked Neil Gorsuch.

What unfolded, hour by hour, was a mosaic in which those around the president—and advocates for the candidates—fed reporters bits and pieces, which ultimately produced a blurry picture of who might win the nomination sweepstakes.

Which is exactly the way Trump wanted it, before he picked the judge who everyone thought he might pick all along.