The day Brett Kavanaugh learned Donald Trump would nominate him to the U.S. Supreme Court, he first attended church. Early in their new book, Justice on Trial, Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino inform us that the future justice was a habitual church-goer. He was so committed, in fact, that he served as a lector in his local parish. On the day that would change his life, Providence had queued up a timely Scripture reading for Mass. It was Second Corinthians 12:7–10. In this passage, the Apostle Paul recounts the tribulations he has suffered for the Lord: “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Thus Hemingway and Severino signal their purpose early: Justice on Trial is not a work of balanced reporting, as Hemingway, a senior editor at The Federalist insists. Severino, her co-author, is a former clerk for Clarence Thomas and the chief counsel for the Judicial Crisis Network — the same organization behind confirmkavanaugh.com, which was set up in 2018 to defend the nominee. The book serves much the same purpose as JCN’s old website. It sets out to exonerate not just Kavanaugh but the president who nominated him. If the press is willing to smear Kavanaugh with tales of sexual misconduct, reports of Trump’s sexual violence become that much more difficult to believe. And so their Trump is a thoughtful man, committed to originalist interpretations of the Constitution. They even make his White House look functional, which is a feat. Kavanaugh, meanwhile, nearly glows with sainthood. At Georgetown Prep, we learn, the justice was a diligent student. At Yale, he was a virginal intellectual. If he drank too much sometimes, it was only because he worked so hard. The poor boy just needed a release. When he tried to woo his wife, Ashley, she almost rejected him — but not because he was a creep! No, he was almost too nice for his own good.
It’s dreck, all of it. Nobody’s so spotless that an investigation of his or her life would be universally positive. Even public figures who aren’t moral monsters must own moments of cruelty or at least incompetence. And here, Hemingway and Severino’s reportage of the inner workings of the White House is a tell. We know the Trump White House is dysfunctional, prone to leaks and staff turnover and surprise executive decisions announced on Twitter. None of these qualities appear in their book. As for Kavanaugh himself, he may well have been as studious as the authors claim. But it’s his character, not his study habits, that are in question, and on those grounds, he becomes much trickier to defend. It’s at least evident that he misled the Senate about the extent of his drinking problems in college and high school, to say nothing of the statistical rarity of false assault accusations. Assuming, generously, that Severino and Hemingway did seek to fairly report the story of the confirmation fight, it’s clear that neither had sources willing to criticize Kavanaugh, and neither questioned whether the story they put together might possibly be skewed. But really, who expected anything better from Hemingway? She flipped from Trump skeptic to Trump superfan almost as soon as the president took office. This isn’t hypocrisy but a professional calculation; it’s difficult to be a conservative media critic in opposition to a Republican president, especially one who’s constantly in the news for public acts of corruption. Her principal occupation since January 2017 has been to defend his administration at all costs on Fox and at The Federalist. It’s busy work, but she carries out her responsibilities with gusto.
Trump, as always, recognizes a job well done:
But the fantastical character of Justice on Trial is not a reason to dismiss it. It matters for what its contents tell us about conservative media in the era of Trump. Though Hemingway and Severino try to undermine the women who accused Kavanaugh of misconduct, the women themselves are secondary casualties. The authors work toward a goal bigger than Christine Blasey Ford’s individual ruin. They want to discredit the press itself, an ambition with an additional benefit for commentators like Hemingway: It’s much easier to convince the public to listen to you, to prioritize you, if your competitors are all fake news.
As Hemingway and Severino tell it, journalists were so eager to discredit Kavanaugh that they latched onto any thin proof of his sins. Christine Blasey Ford’s memory was so shoddy, her account so “improbable,” they write, that Kavanaugh’s innocence should have been obvious to all. And Ford herself was no innocent. In fact, classmates say her school nickname was “a riff on her maiden name and a sexual act,” the authors state. The implication – that Ford was slutty, and therefore difficult to believe – is as rancid as it is obvious. Ford’s own father is pleased that Kavanaugh is on the court, they’ve since reported. Leland Keyser, Ford’s high school friend, doesn’t recall the party where Ford says Kavanaugh assaulted her. She says doesn’t even remember Kavanaugh, despite going out with his best friend, and doesn’t believe he assaulted Ford. Deborah Ramirez, who says that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a Yale party, isn’t credible either, the authors insist. Her classmates said her story was bunk and she was drunk, a double blow. “Ramirez admitted that she ‘quickly became inebriated,’ at the party, ending up ‘on the floor, foggy and slurring her words,” they write. Some drinking problems, evidently, matter more than others.
The narrative thread that binds Justice on Trial together is that of media failure. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow reported Ramirez’s story “in a breathless style that gave it a sense of significance, even though it betrayed more than a hint of desperation.” Unnamed reporters “hounded” Kavanaugh’s female defenders; the Times and the Washington Post became “the public-relations arm of the anti-Kavanaugh movement.” As Hemingway and Severino are at least pretending to see it, the press united in an effort to block Kavanaugh from the Supreme Court. To accomplish its objective, it smeared him, just as previous generations of reporters had done to Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork. (Bork’s son even contributed a blurb for the book.) The complete effect is that of a Jon McNaughton painting: a muscular, beatific Kavanaugh standing athwart the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh, Trump, and conservatives in general all stand in the center of a gathering mob. Around them stands the liberal press, ready to martyr Paul all over again.
The press is not always its own best ally. As Hemingway and Severino note, the Washington Post did erroneously report that Kavanaugh’s beleaguered alma mater, Georgetown Prep, had published a job ad for a new director of alumni relations in October, well after the media onslaught began; in fact, the school had listed the job in July. And when Michael Avenatti, erstwhile attorney to the stars, introduced his new client, Julie Swetnick, some columnists did seize on the story as further evidence of Kavanaugh’s failings. Swetnick told a terrible story — that Kavanaugh had spiked the punch at a party so other boys could gang-rape her and other girls in attendance. But the story later collapsed, as Swetnick eventually contradicted parts of her own statement and an alleged witness told NBC that Avenatti had “twisted her words.” These failures give conservative commentators like Hemingway an important opening.
So did the Times’ recent publication of an excerpt from another book on the Kavanaugh confirmation. Published by two of its own reporters, Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, The Education of Brett Kavanaugh helped corroborate Ramirez’s account of misconduct and confirmed earlier reports that the FBI had failed to investigate key tips about Kavanaugh’s behavior. They also reported for the first time that a Yale classmate of Kavanaugh and Ramirez — Max Stier, founder of the Partnership for Public Service — had told the FBI about another possible Kavanaugh incident. The future justice allegedly exposed himself to a second woman, Tracy Harmon Joyce.
And if you’d read only the section published by the Times, that’s really all you’d know. But it wasn’t the full story. The excerpt omitted some key details that appear earlier in the book: that Harmon Joyce, a close friend of Ramirez, had declined to speak to Pogrebin and Kelly and that “several” of her friends said she did not recall the event.
Hemingway even dismissed the excerpt’s characterization of Ramirez as a Yale outsider from a working-class background:
It’s self-evident that the yacht-faring residents of Greenwich do not represent the whole of Connecticut. The town of New Haven itself is heavily working-class, which is apparent to anyone who visits it and spends more than ten minutes off the Yale campus. The paper’s update, meanwhile, didn’t correct a reporting error, so it’s not much of a bombshell. It simply included information located elsewhere in the excerpted book. But the Times wounded itself, its reporters, and Ramirez herself by publishing that section over other possibilities. The story became a story about standards at the Times. The paper delivered Hemingway her talking points in a gift-wrapped package.
But these instances of press failure do not necessarily support the sweeping assertion made by Hemingway and Severino that the press, in its liberal zeal, categorically botched its coverage of the Kavanaugh hearing. The examples they offer as proof are not really as damning as they say. Plenty of news outlets produced sober-minded coverage of the Swetnick story, though Hemingway and Severino omit those details from their book. They criticize NBC for running a story on a Facebook post created by a high-school classmate of Blasey Ford’s. The classmate, Cristina King Miranda, claimed the assault “DID happen” as she heard about it at the time. She later deleted her post after clarifying that she had no firsthand knowledge of the attack. “That it happened or not, I have no idea,” she told NPR. NBC, Hemingway and Severino insist, erred by covering Miranda’s post after she had deleted it, under the following headline: “Accuser’s Schoolmate Says She Recalls Hearing of Alleged Kavanaugh Incident.” But that’s an accurate headline, and the story itself makes no explosive claims. In fact, the story states outright that NBC could not confirm Miranda’s story, and the claim itself was newsworthy.
The real story of the Kavanaugh confirmation isn’t so easy to dismiss. The Harmon Joyce story isn’t just newsworthy because of what it suggests about Kavanaugh’s behavior at Yale. The life cycle of this subplot does not end with Stier’s recollection but with the FBI’s failure to investigate the tip. And this is a key difference between the books. Pogrebin and Kelly don’t dispute the fact that many of Kavanaugh’s friends and professional acquaintances rave about him. Or that Avenatti, to cite another example in both books, accomplished significantly more harm than good. What Pogrebin and Kelly make clear instead is that Kavanaugh’s protectors had more power than his detractors. The Establishment didn’t victimize Kavanaugh; it protected him, just as it had protected Thomas from Anita Hill more than two decades ago. Bork, the book’s other example of liberal overreach, was less fortunate, but his record makes him a uniquely difficult character to defend. As Jane Coaston noted for Vox last year, the failed Supreme Court nominee once “ruled that making sterilization a policy for a job didn’t violate the Occupational Safety and Health Act,” and wrote that the Civil Rights Act of 1963 expressed “a principle of unsurpassed ugliness.” Some things even the U.S. Senate can’t stomach — at least, it couldn’t back then. If Bork has his defenders now, perhaps that’s a sign that his nomination would fare much differently if it occurred today.
By the time of his martyrdom, Paul helped fling a new faith across the face of a changing world. Kavanaugh is no martyr. He rose to a worldlier form of power. But in its own way, the story of his nomination helps shape another, secularized faith. Its ambitions are radical. In Justice on Trial, Hemingway and Severino insist with the conviction of disciples that conservatives are victims of a press and Democratic party without scruples. Conservative media is a necessary corrective force, they suggest. To them, investigation is unwelcome and criticism unwarranted. They accept without question the version of events furnished by the Trump White House; they do not question the official narrative once in their 300-plus-page book. They give the appearance, then, that they accept Kavanaugh’s suitability as if it were received wisdom, and they proceed from that basis — an anti-democratic impulse that brings their attacks on the press into focus. Good people, they write, may still volunteer for public service because they believe the wicked press will spare them a smear campaign. “But it can happen, it does happen, and it just happened,” they warn. “The big unknown is whether America will let it happen again.” Hemingway and Severino would rather “it” didn’t. They prefer gentle coverage, a tamed public square. The price of their desired order is the free press.