President Donald Trump on Wednesday placed himself at the center of the anguished national debate over sexual assault, suggesting in his defense of embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh that the #MeToo movement was "very dangerous" and unfairly threatened an entire class of powerful men.
Trump's expansive argument cast doubt on the credibility not only of the three women who have accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, but also on scores of other women who have claimed sexual abuse by prominent men, including the president himself.
In his defiant rush to rescue Kavanaugh's nomination, Trump effectively sought to draw a line in the sand against the growing number of allegations that have felled male authority figures in politics, the media and business - including many, Trump acknowledged, who have been his friends.
"When you are guilty until proven innocent, it's just not supposed to be that way," Trump told reporters. "That's a very dangerous standard for the country."
During a freewheeling, 81-minute news conference Wednesday in New York, Trump was asked whether the sexual assault or harassment brought against him by more than a dozen women - claims he denies - influenced his thinking about the Kavanaugh's accusers.
"Absolutely," Trump said.
"I've had a lot of false charges made against me, really false charges," he added. "I know friends that have had false charges. People want fame. They want money. They want whatever. So when I see it, I view it differently then somebody sitting home watching television, where they say, 'Oh, Judge Kavanaugh this or that.' It's happened to me many times."
On the eve of Thursday's high-stakes Senate hearing that likely will determine whether Kavanaugh is confirmed to the high court, Trump appointed himself the judge's principal character witness and moved to personally navigate one of the most acute crises of his presidency.
The president said he stood by Kavanaugh, but also left open the possibility of withdrawing his nomination if he is persuaded of the judge's guilt after watching Thursday's testimony from him and his first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
Some of the first cracks in confidence emerged inside the White House on Wednesday as a third woman came forward alleging Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, with growing worries that the nomination might go down. But there was also a hardening resolve to press forward and fight back once attorney Michael Avenatti - who represents Trump accuser Stormy Daniels and is toying with a 2020 presidential run - entered the fray Wednesday representing the latest Kavanaugh accuser.
Trump and his advisers and allies expressed genuine anxiety about Thursday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Aides found it difficult to mobilize surrogates - especially female high school friends and other women who know Kavanaugh personally - to blanket the airwaves defending the judge's character.
The president has acknowledged uncertainty about how the hearing would go and how Kavanaugh might be perceived, and he has begun laying the groundwork to blame Senate Republican leaders should the nomination fail, according to people who have spoken with him or have been briefed on conversations
With so much in limbo, there was no grand strategy at play other than Trump's call for a more forceful defense of Kavanaugh. The president and his aides concluded that they have a narrowing window of time during which to push Kavanaugh through before his nomination becomes even more tainted.
Trump is confronting both his own personal grievances with the #MeToo reckoning and his responsibilities as leader of the Republican Party, whose congressional majorities are at risk six weeks from now in the midterm elections. Aides have said Trump feels vindicated politically on this issue because he was elected despite the "Access Hollywood" recording in which he bragged to Billy Bush about grabbing women by their genitals.
Either outcome in the Kavanaugh fight is likely to have far-reaching impact on both the upcoming elections and the next two years of the Trump presidency, according to strategists in both parties. Kavanaugh's confirmation could help inspire more Republicans to turn out to vote November, but could also motivate Democrats and alienate some women voters from the GOP for years to come. A failed nomination, meanwhile, could deeply divide the Republican coalition and suppress voter turnout.
As Trump answered a succession of questions in Wednesday's news conference about Kavanaugh and sexual assault, one veteran Republican lawmaker called The Washington Post to wonder aloud whether a White House aide could gently nudge the president off the stage or else risk further unnerving Republicans. Allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said they were uneasy late Wednesday about the myriad ways events could spiral out of control on Thursday.
Vice President Mike Pence traveled to the Capitol on Wednesday to reassure Senate Republicans at their regular closed-door lunch. The vice president reaffirmed his and the president's support of Kavanaugh, saying he was confident it would be "a respectful and fair process" for all involved, and criticizing the Democrats for conducting themselves "disgracefully," according to a White House official.
"We stand with the nominee," Pence told the senators, according to the official.
For Kavanaugh, who spent the day hunkered down with White House counsel Donald McGahn and other advisers, the pressure is intense to improve upon his performance in a Fox News Channel interview earlier this week. The judge has told White House aides that he would answer any question posed to him at Thursday's hearing, even those that are incredibly personal, according to officials involved in the preparations.
Kavanaugh received mixed reviews for his Fox interview from critics - including Trump, who told aides that he thought the judge came across as weak, unconvincing and insufficiently indignant, according to people who spoke with him.
The president, who has closely monitored news coverage and cable commentary from his perch in New York, where he is attending the United Nations General Assembly, wondered aloud whether Kavanaugh should have even sat for the interview, advisers said.
Trump wants to see the judge with a more combative posture, according to aides, and has said he is willing to fight for Kavanaugh as long as the judge is willing to fight for himself.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservatives Union, said, "My advice to Brett is, throw away scripts, speak from the heart, answer openly and be proud of the man you are and the life you've lived. There's not an American who doesn't look at this situation and realize that girls become women and boys become men, and along that path you have lots of experiences and make lots of decisions."
Kavanaugh, through White House intermediaries, was being urged to defend himself on television from almost the moment the New Yorker published accusations from a second woman, Deborah Ramirez, on Sunday night. Senate Republicans began to make clear to the White House that the situation had moved from poor to "red-alert crisis," as one Republican adviser in touch with GOP senators described it.
Instead of just issuing statements and talking points, Senate Republicans insisted that Kavanaugh had to give them some clarity about where he stood and help his own cause, the adviser said.
Trump initially wanted Kavanaugh to appear on television and defend himself - an unusual strategy for a Supreme Court nominee - and there was consideration by aides to having him conduct a broader media blitz.
There were deliberations for days about whether Kavanaugh should appear on the conservative-leaning Fox News or a more mainstream national broadcast network, according to two people familiar with the planning.
Veteran CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford, who has written books on the Supreme Court and interviewed several justices on camera, was discussed by top White House aides as a possible option. But after lengthy discussions with Kavanaugh, Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum was selected, mostly due to the judge's comfort level with the idea, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly reveal internal deliberations.
"Fox was the safest bet," said one adviser.
Kavanaugh was acutely aware that Trump and other senior aides thought he needed to be more forceful with his denials than he was in his Fox interview, which is why he issued a statement Wednesday calling the allegations brought by Avenatti's client "from the Twilight Zone," according to someone familiar with the drafting of it.
On Tuesday, Trump told advisers that he had grown tired of seeing Kavanaugh dominate the headlines, according to people who have spoken with him.
So on Wednesday, the president took Kavanaugh's defense into his own hands, defending him in multiple appearances before reporters at the United Nations. In recent days, advisers said, the president has complained bitterly that McConnell and Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, have been getting "played like a bunch of fools" by agreeing to Democratic demands to slow the pace of Kavanaugh's confirmation.
"They could have pushed it through two and a half weeks ago, and you wouldn't be talking about it right now - which is, frankly, what I would have preferred," Trump told reporters Wednesday. "But they didn't do that."
First published by The Washington Post.