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Supreme Court Fight Goes Prime Time With Kavanaugh’s TV Interview

Posted September 24, 2018 10:35 p.m. EDT

Even the toughest Supreme Court confirmation battles never quite came to this: a grim-faced nominee, stoic wife at his side, going on national television and describing when, approximately, he lost his virginity.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s appearance on Fox News on Monday night, submitting to a tough round of questions from anchor Martha MacCallum about allegations of sexual misconduct, was the first time in memory that a Supreme Court nominee submitted to a televised interview before the confirmation vote.

Justice Clarence Thomas, whose live testimony about Anita Hill was a major TV event, spoke publicly only during formal Senate hearings, and his famed People magazine cover story in 1991 was published a month after he was confirmed. Judge Merrick Garland, whose nomination was stymied by Republicans until President Barack Obama left office, never granted a TV interview. In 1937, Justice Hugo Black gave a radio address to denounce his past association with the Ku Klux Klan — after he was successfully appointed.

“They avoid the media like the plague,” Christopher Schmidt, legal historian at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said of nominees to the court. “This is generally the last thing they want to do. Which goes to emphasize just how utterly extraordinary what we’re seeing unfold right now actually is.”

The interview, recorded at a Washington hotel Monday afternoon, was arranged by White House aides looking to salvage Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which has teetered in the wake of allegations of sexual impropriety that he has denied.

“I have never sexually assaulted anyone, not in high school, not ever,” he said in Monday’s interview.

The platform of Fox News offered Kavanaugh a prime opportunity to make his case directly to President Donald Trump and his supporters. Not only is Trump an avid watcher, but his deputy chief of staff, Bill Shine, was formerly a co-president of the channel. The president even plugged the interview in a tweet shortly before it aired.

But even as Kavanaugh emphatically denied the accusations against him, his appearance had more than a whiff of a reality-show confessional, starkly at odds with the prestige of the job he is seeking. The judge grew robotic at times under MacCallum’s scrutiny, reverting to talking points and reacting stiffly to her questions.

“I’ve always treated women with dignity and respect,” Kavanaugh said, repeating the phrase four times in the course of about 20 minutes. He said he was seeking a “fair process” 17 times. When MacCallum asked if he believed it was fair to judge adults on the actions of their teenage selves, Kavanaugh looked thrown.

“What I’m here to do is tell you the truth,” he said after a pause, “and this allegation from 36 years ago is not —”

MacCallum jumped in to repeat her question, prompting a halting reply. “I think everyone is judged on their whole life,” Kavanaugh said. “I’m a good person. I’ve led a good life. I’ve tried to do a lot of good for a lot of people. I am not perfect, I know that.”

The choice of MacCallum as interviewer raised some eyebrows. She works on the reporting side of Fox News as opposed to the commentariat, which includes pro-Trump voices like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. But critics pointed to supportive comments she made about Roger Ailes, the network’s former chairman, in the wake of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him in 2016. (The lawsuit eventually forced out Ailes, who died in 2017.)

Since then, MacCallum, who joined Fox News in 2004 from CNBC, has been given a plum 7 p.m. time slot, and she is one of only two of the network’s news anchors who have interviewed Trump since he took office.

Her sit-down with Kavanaugh impressed some skeptics. “Martha MacCallum is pressing Kavanaugh more than I would have guessed,” Brian Fallon, Hillary Clinton’s campaign press secretary, wrote on Twitter.

In some respects, Kavanaugh’s on-air defense recalled another television event focused on a political figure’s sexual behavior.

In 1992, Bill and Hillary Clinton sat down with Steve Kroft of CBS' “60 Minutes” to address reports that Clinton, then a Democratic candidate for president, had carried on an affair with a woman named Gennifer Flowers. The wincingly personal nature of that interview was paralleled on Monday when MacCallum asked Kavanaugh about rumors that he and his high school friends targeted women for sex at parties.

“I did not have sexual intercourse or anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter,” the judge replied.

“So you’re saying,” MacCallum interrupted, “that through all these years that are in question, you were a virgin?”

His face frozen — and his confirmation on the line — Kavanaugh had little choice but to respond. “That’s correct,” he said.