The Daily 202: Kavanaugh hearing offers an ‘unprecedented’ display of the Senate’s institutional decline

— Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said what was truly “unprecedented” was when Democrats blocked Robert Bork’s confirmation back in 1987. “This is my 15th Supreme Court confirmation hearing since I joined the committee in 1981,” said the Iowa Republican. “Thirty-one-years ago, during my fourth Supreme Court confirmation hearing, liberal outside groups and their Senate allies engaged in an unprecedented smear campaign against Judge Robert Bork.”

Bork, as the solicitor general, conspired with Richard Nixon in 1973 to carry out the “Saturday Night Massacre” and fire Archibald Cox in a scheme to obstruct the special prosecutor’s investigation into the Watergate affair. He did so after then-attorney general Elliot Richardson and deputy attorney general William Ruckelshaus had resigned rather than do so. Bork’s nomination to the high court went down 42 to 58 on the Senate floor, with six Republicans joining every Democrat in opposition. Ronald Reagan subsequently nominated Anthony Kennedy as a more moderate replacement.

.. — Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said what was truly “unprecedented” was when Democrats blocked Robert Bork’s confirmation back in 1987. “This is my 15th Supreme Court confirmation hearing since I joined the committee in 1981,” said the Iowa Republican. “Thirty-one-years ago, during my fourth Supreme Court confirmation hearing, liberal outside groups and their Senate allies engaged in an unprecedented smear campaign against Judge Robert Bork.”

Bork, as the solicitor general, conspired with Richard Nixon in 1973 to carry out the “Saturday Night Massacre” and fire Archibald Cox in a scheme to obstruct the special prosecutor’s investigation into the Watergate affair. He did so after then-attorney general Elliot Richardson and deputy attorney general William Ruckelshaus had resigned rather than do so. Bork’s nomination to the high court went down 42 to 58 on the Senate floor, with six Republicans joining every Democrat in opposition. Ronald Reagan subsequently nominated Anthony Kennedy as a more moderate replacement.

.. Kavanaugh is now up for this seat, which Grassley still resents did not go to Bork. The chairman read at length from an op-ed that ran over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal by conservative legal blogger Mark Pulliam. “By confirming Judge Kavanaugh,” Pulliam wrote, “the Senate can go some way toward atoning for its shameful treatment of Justice Robert Bork 31 years ago.”

.. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), whose father was Reagan’s solicitor general, also complained about Bork being blocked during his opening statement. “It remains something of a rock-bottom moment for the Senate and for the Senate Judiciary Committee,” he said.

.. The chorus of reverent Republican paeans to Bork, whose legacy will always be tainted by his role as the hatchet man in the “Saturday Night Massacre,” were particularly striking against the backdrop of Democratic charges that Kavanaugh would give legal air cover to Trump in the plausible scenario that he moves against Bob Mueller, as well as the continuing unwillingness of congressional Republicans to pass legislation that would safeguard the special counsel.

.. In this vein, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) argued that holding the hearing is “unprecedented … because [Trump] is an unindicted co-conspirator who has nominated a potential justice who will cast the swing vote on issues relating to his possible criminal culpability, including whether he is required to obey a subpoena or to appear before a grand jury, whether he is required to testify in a prosecution of his friends or associates or other officials in his administration and whether in fact he is required to stand trial if he is indicted while he is president.”

.. — Introducing himself to the committee as reasonable and collegial, Kavanaugh described Merrick Garland as a personal “friend” and a “superb” chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where they have served together for more than a decade. “I am proud of that body of work and I stand behind it,” Kavanaugh said.

Perhaps this was meant as an olive branch, but Democrats took it as trolling. Garland, after all, was Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Antonin Scalia in 2016, and Senate Republicans refused to give him a hearing or otherwise consider his nomination. As much as anything else, the GOP’s treatment of Garland two years ago destroyed the last vestiges of comity in the judicial nominations process. Three Democrats cited him during the hearing on Tuesday to call for a postponement.

Kavanaugh’s comment about Garland wasn’t the only thing that rubbed salt in open wounds. Tuesday’s hearing featured sometimes naked displays of brute political force by a party that has just a one-seat majority in the Senate.

.. “You had a chance, and you lost,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told the Democrats. “If you want to pick judges from your way of thinking, then you better win an election.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) claimed that the GOP’s refusal to allow a hearing for Garland actually gives Gorsuch and Kavanaugh “super legitimacy” because voters in 2016 knew that the next president would get to pick at least one justice.By releasing a list of the judges he’d pick from, Cruz said, Trump provided “unprecedented transparency.”

“This is an attempt by the Democrats to relitigate the 2016 presidential election,” Cruz continued.

To be sure, when it looked like Hillary Clinton was probably going to win, Cruz argued that Republicans should consider keeping the seat vacant for her entire term.

.. these same GOP members have also been going to the White House complex for several weeks to participate in mock confirmation hearings with Kavanaugh.

They’ve pretended to be Democratic senators in these moot sessions and coached Kavanaugh on how to deflect expected inquiries from the other side.

.. “It’s mostly a sham,” said Whitehouse. “You know the game,” the senator told Kavanaugh, who looked back at him stone-faced. “In the Bush White House, you coached judicial nominees to just tell senators that they have a commitment to follow Supreme Court precedent, that they will adhere to statutory text and that they have no ideological agenda. Fairy tales!”

.. Last year, McConnell went “nuclear” — in the parlance of the Senate — by changing the rules of the body to allow Supreme Court nominees to be confirmed by a simple majority — instead of 60 votes. Harry Reid shortsightedly changed the rules four years earlier to allow lower-court nominees to be confirmed this way, but he said at the time that the Supreme Court process should stay sacrosanct.

.. Going nuclear means that presidents are more likely to pick ideological nominees when their party controls the Senate, whether from the right or the left, because they no longer need any members of the other party to cross over to secure 60 votes. Kavanaugh can be muscled onto the court with only GOP votes, which makes his confirmation a sort of fait accompli. He does not need to make concessions or agree to recuse himself from certain cases.

.. The result of the rule changes is a Senate that’s become more majoritarian. Members of the minority have fewer prerogatives. This is a recipe for institutional decay. No one who watched yesterday’s circus could credibly call the Senate the world’s greatest deliberative body. It certainly isn’t what James Madison had in mind when he designed the upper chamber as a cooling saucer on the passions of the people’s representatives in the House. Republicans will probably come to regret the rule changes when they again, inevitably, find themselves in the minority and Democrats treat them as they’re now being treated. That probably won’t happen next year, but perhaps in 2021 or 2023.

.. But there’s no going back now. Why would Democrats tie their hands and hold their nominees in the future to a higher standard than Republicans have held theirs? Neither party’s base would tolerate unilateral disarmament.

.. “It was a poisonous session, as acrimonious as I have witnessed since sitting in the committee’s hearing room for the grilling of Anita Hill during the second round of the Clarence Thomas hearings,” writes columnist Ruth Marcus.“And while no dispute over documents, however impassioned, can rival the Hill-Thomas encounter, the Republican majority’s handling of this issue will be even more dangerous for the future of the Senate’s ability to conduct its constitutional duty of advice and consent.
 “Kavanaugh may not become the most conservative member of the court, but his background suggests he would be the most partisan,” Dana Milbank explains in today’s paper. “Democrats say the committee received only 7 percent of Kavanaugh’s White House documents — and some of those have been altered, while half cannot be discussed publicly. Why? They would likely reinforce what is already known about Kavanaugh as a nakedly partisan appointment, solidifying the court’s transition from a deliberative body to what is effectively another political branch. …
..  ‘a cynical view of Kavanaugh’s actions would be that he bases his legal reasoning on his conservative views — that he supports broad powers for a Republican president and circumscribed powers for a Democratic president.’ What has emerged about Kavanaugh — particularly his vulgar plan to humiliate [Bill] Clinton — reinforces that cynical view. This is why Kavanaugh’s defenders don’t want the documents to come out.”

Only one other president has ever acted this desperate

President Trump is acting with a desperation I’ve seen only once before in Washington: 45 years ago when President Richard M. Nixon ordered the firing of special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. Nixon was fixated on ending the Watergate investigation, just as Trump wants to shut down the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

..  in some ways, Trump is conducting himself more frantically than Nixon, all the while protesting his innocence.

.. Nixon fought to the end because he knew that what was on the tape recordings that the prosecutor wanted would incriminate him. We don’t know what Trump is hiding, if anything. But if he is innocent of any wrongdoing, why not let Robert S. Mueller III do his job and prove it?

.. Nixon was desperate. His goal was to shut down the Watergate investigation by ridding himself of Cox. Instead, Nixon got Leon Jaworski, the highly respected former president of the American Bar Association. Nine months later, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision forcing Nixon to release the tapes that proved his guilt. Shortly thereafter, the president resigned.

.. Not only was that Saturday night the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency, but it also accelerated the growing wave of political cynicism and distrust in our government we are still living with today. One manifestation of that legacy: a president who will never admit he uttered a falsehood and a Congress too often pursuing only a partisan version of the truth.

.. The vehemence and irresponsibility of the rhetoric attacking the Mueller investigation tear at the very structure of our governance. Men who have sworn to use and protect our institutions of justice are steadily weakening them. Should the president finally decide to fire Mueller and put in place someone who will do his bidding, the country could be thrown into a political crisis that would scar our democracy and further erode the trust of our people in our governmental institutions.

What If President Donald Trump Tries to Fire Robert Mueller?

Mr. Mueller was appointed not by Mr. Trump, but by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from involvement in any investigation related to the 2016 presidential race. That means Mr. Trump couldn’t fire Mr. Mueller himself, but would have to order Mr. Rosenstein to do so.

Mr. Rosenstein has expressed support for Mr. Mueller, and his associates expect him to resign rather than carry out such an order. If that happens, Mr. Trump could turn to the next Justice Department official in line, acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio, and then to Solicitor General Noel Francisco.

It isn’t known if either would heed an order to fire Mr. Mueller. If they refuse, Mr. Trump would have to go down the hierarchy at the Justice Department until he found an official willing to do so. In such a situation, the president could face a number of DOJ resignations—and the political fallout that would entail.

Something like this happened on Oct. 20, 1973, when President Richard Nixon ordered Justice Department officials to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned, as did his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. Solicitor General Robert Bork finally did as Mr. Nixon asked. That episode became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

.. Some legal experts have asked whether Mr. Trump might replace Mr. Sessions or Mr. Rosenstein with another official and order that person to fire Mr. Mueller.

Attorneys general and their deputies must be confirmed by the Senate. Someone who is temporarily “acting” in that position, without Senate confirmation, must come from an existing Justice Department job or a Senate-confirmed post elsewhere in the administration.

.. Mr. Trump could, in theory, install someone like Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general, as acting attorney general. Then, he could order Mr. Pruitt to fire Mr. Mueller. The political blowback from such a move, however, would likely be considerable.

Would Justice Department officials appoint another special counsel to replace Mr. Mueller?

Harsh public reaction to the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973 forced Mr. Nixon to allow DOJ officials to appoint a replacement. Leon Jaworski took that job and steadily pursued the investigation until the president was forced to resign.

.. There is no reason to think the Trump administration would appoint a new special counsel if Mr. Mueller were dismissed.

.. Prominent lawmakers of both parties, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), have expressed support for Mr. Mueller. Mr. Grassley’s committee holds confirmation hearings for Justice Department officials, so his views are especially important.

The Iowa senator has suggested he wouldn’t move to approve a replacement if Mr. Trump fires Mr. Sessions, and on Tuesday he told Fox Business that “it would be suicide for the president to want to talk about firing Mueller.”

.. In addition, even if Mr. Trump fires Mr. Mueller, he can’t fire the grand jury the special counsel is working with or the judge overseeing it. A judge could appoint another prosecutor to continue working with the grand jury.

In Trump vs. the F.B.I., Trump Will Lose

And yet Mr. Trump has signaled his desire to see it made public, unredacted. He clearly sees the memo as a weapon of political warfare — a way to rid himself of Mr. Rosenstein, who oversees both the F.B.I. and the special prosecutor investigating the White House, Robert Mueller. Mr. Rosenstein has made it clear that he will not fire Mr. Mueller at the president’s whim — which, to the president, means he needs to go.

.. Mr. Trump has been transparent in his antagonism. It is not a disinterested belief that the bureau is corrupt and in need of reform. He’d been in office for only four days when F.B.I. agents came to the White House to interview the national security adviser, Mike Flynn, who’d engaged in skulduggery with Russia. Mr. Flynn lied to the F.B.I.

.. Nixon’s willing executioner back in the October 1973 was the No. 3 man at Justice, the solicitor general Robert Bork. At the end of that fateful night, Nixon promised him the next seat on the Supreme Court

.. As the bloodhounds close in on the Oval Office, he may sharpen his blade and place the prosecutor’s head on a pike. If so, he’ll have to confront the Constitution. And he’ll lose again.

Justice Dept. Official Defends Mueller as Republicans Try to Discredit Him

Mr. Rosenstein mounted a step-by-step defense of Mr. Mueller’s conduct. He noted that department rules prevented Mr. Mueller from taking political affiliation into consideration when hiring for career positions, and he distinguished between officials holding political views and making investigative decisions out of bias.

.. “We recognize we have employees with political opinions. And it’s our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions,” Mr. Rosenstein said

.. “Based upon what I know, I believe Director Mueller is appropriately remaining in his scope and conducting himself appropriately, and in the event there is any credible allegation of misconduct by anybody on his staff, that he is taking appropriate action.”

.. If Mr. Trump were to try to fire Mr. Mueller based on any developments so far, the president would likely first have to fire or force the resignation of Mr. Rosenstein and then hunt for a replacement willing to carry out his orders, echoing Richard Nixon’s so-called Saturday Night Massacre during the Watergate scandal.

.. The campaign against the special counsel, at the very least, provides a rallying cry for the president’s supporters to counter the drumbeat of news about Russian interference in the election and possible links to the Trump campaign.

.. Moreover, the voices of doubt are no longer confined to the party’s far-right wing. They include Republican mainstays like Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.

.. The president’s own legal team also appears to be part of the campaign.