During the 2016 presidential campaign, numerous Republican Senators criticized Donald Trump and opposed his nomination, positioning themselves as principled alternatives to his brand of politics. However, the current fight over Trump’s Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh clearly demonstrates that the president’s most popular “never-Trump” critics in the Republican Party are prepared to push Trump’s agenda.
Chief among them is South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican. Graham backed Jeb Bush in 2016 after his own primary run failed, denouncing Trump as “batshit crazy” and a “kook.” In January 2016, Graham said that choosing between Trump or Texas Senator Ted Cruz was like “death by being shot or by poisoning, doesn’t really matter.” A month later, Graham tweeted, “Donald Trump is not a conservative Republican. He’s an opportunist. He’s not fit to be President of the United States.” On the campaign trail, Trump infamously read Graham’s private cell phone number aloud at one of his televised rallies, forcing him to get a new one.
Two years later, things have changed considerably. Graham has developed a personal relationship with Trump, claiming that he was won over by his policies. He plans to endorse him in 2020 “without equivocation.” At Kavanaugh’s Judiciary Committee hearing on September 27, Graham angrily defended Trump’s nominee and lashed out at Democrats over Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegations being brought forward. “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” screeched Graham, “and if you really wanted to know the truth, you sure as hell wouldn’t have done what you’ve done to this guy.”
Kavanaugh has also gotten a boost from notable “never-Trump” critics outside of Washington. Bret Stephens, the political commentator and New York Times columnist, has questioned Trump’s mental stability, said he has “narcissistic personality disorder” and argued that his “frequently unhinged and spasmodic tweets suggests a guy who isn’t in control of himself.” Stephens has penned op-eds with titles like, “Why I’m Still a Never-Trumper” and “Trump Will Have Blood on his Hands.” However, Stephens has defended Trump’s Supreme Court pick. “Bottom line, I came away from the hearings feeling no more confident than I had the day before of who was being truthful,” wrote Stephens on September 28. “It was high drama but it was also a wash. What happened Thursday should not prevent Kavanaugh’s confirmation.”
George W. Bush is another prominent figure who claims to be more principled than Trump, yet is backing the president’s Supreme Court pick. Bush’s favorability rating has skyrocketed since Trump’s election, as he’s offered vague critiques of the President. Last October, Bush gave a speech where he condemned the changing tone of U.S. politics, attacking a “discourse degraded by casual cruelty.” A piece published by CNN’s Chris Cillizza last October declared that Bush had “laid a major smackdown on Trumpism.” Bush certainly isn’t laying a smackdown on Trump in relation to Kavanaugh: According to The Washington Post, Bush is currently contacting Senators to whip votes for the nominee. Bush may have had a public relations makeover, casting himself as a grandfatherly former president who has now taken to painting. But in reality, he is working behind the scenes to ensure an accused rapist has a lifetime seat on the most powerful court in the country.
Unlike Graham, Senator Jeff Flake (R‑Ariz.) didn’t develop a relationship with Trump after his election, and his critiques of the administration have been unrelenting. Flake has been cited for criticizing Trump “like no other Republican.” After announcing that he wouldn’t seek reelection last October, Flake launched into a fiery Senate speech, attacking his own party broadly and the President specifically. “The principles that underlie our politics, the values of our founding, are too vital to our identity and to our survival to allow them to be compromised by the requirements of politics,” said Flake. “Because politics can make us silent when we should speak, and silence can equal complicity. I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit.”
A cursory examination of Flake’s voting record indicates that he has actually been completely complicit in advancing the Trump administration’s agenda. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump Tracker, Flake votes in line with the President’s position 83.6 percent of the time. He has also supported each one of Trump’s most controversial nominees: Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, Neil Gorsuch and Scott Pruitt.
Kavanaugh was destined to be no different, as the “Never Trumper” revealed that he planned to back Trump’s pick despite multiple sexual assault allegations. However, after Flake was confronted on an elevator by two sexual assault survivors, Maria Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila, Flake seemingly softened his stance and called for a one-week delay while the FBI investigates the accusations. The investigation was immediately backed by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and Maine Senator Susan Collins, two occasional Trump critics who are widely regarded as “moderate Republicans.” According to FiveThirtyEight, Murkowski votes in line with Trump 82.9 percent of the time while Collins does so 79.2 percent.
For Kavanaugh’s critics, an investigation is obviously preferable to an immediate confirmation, but there are many reasons to be skeptical. For starters, the investigation will be led by FBI Director Christopher Wray, who took over for the fired James Comey. Wray was two years behind Kavanaugh at Yale and Yale Law before they both ended up in the Bush administration. Kavanaugh’s former classmate will oversee an investigation with strict parameters. The Trump administration has made it clear that the FBI won’t be carrying out a criminal investigation, but a specific inquiry on behalf of the White House. The FBI will be allowed to take a closer look at the accusations from Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez — who accused Kavanaugh of exposing himself to her at a party. But the agency hasn’t been given permission to examine the claims of Julie Swetnick, who said Kavanaugh engaged in acts of sexual misconduct while he was a student at Georgetown Preparatory School.
According to a New Yorker story by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow, multiple people with knowledge of Kavanaugh’s past have been unable to get in touch with the FBI to testify. This includes his former girlfriend Elizabeth Rasor, who has information on the alleged sexual misconduct at parties Kavanaugh attended, and Yale classmate Charles Ludington, who can testify to Kavanaugh’s alleged history with alcohol. In fact, according to Christine Blasey Ford’s attorney, she hadn’t even been contacted by the FBI as late as Sunday, despite the fact that the investigation is only being permitted to last one week. The New Yorker story quotes Leah Litman, an assistant professor of law at the University of California-Irvine, who dismisses the investigation as a “joke.” She asks, “What kind of an investigation into an assault that happened under the influence of alcohol doesn’t include investigating the accused’s use of alcohol?”
A constricted one-week investigation might seem insufficient to many following the process, but it’s an obvious choice for “moderate” members of the GOP. Once again, they get to celebrate the rituals of democracy without impairing Trump’s agenda.