Kavanaugh confirmation battle hangs over Trump impeachment trial

A handful of GOP senators have compared President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial to the contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 — a political affront, a media circus and a high-stakes Senate vote.

“This is like Kavanaugh all over again,” Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, a member of GOP leadership, complained to reporters at the start of the nearly three-week-long trial.

But for most inside the Capitol, Trump’s impeachment trial looks and feels a lot different than the emotionally intense battle over whether Kavanaugh should be appointed to the nation’s highest court, in no small part because of the nature of the cases.

Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault in the middle of America’s reckoning with sexual harassment and abuse, and his confirmation was in doubt. Trump’s impeachment, however, involves more complicated accusations of attempting to influence a foreign country to investigate his political rivals in exchange for millions in military aid. And his removal was never seriously considered.

“I think it is that same partisan fever that drove this impeachment circus,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. But he added: “We don’t see the same sort of mobs descending on the Capitol during impeachment that we saw during Kavanaugh.”

The firestorm over Kavanaugh — who faced accusations of sexual assault from multiple women in the middle of his confirmation to the Supreme Court — rattled senators for 24 days in the fall of 2018, from the first reports of a mysterious letter to his narrow confirmation vote during a rare Saturday session.

Senators, mostly Republicans but some Democrats, were physically confronted on a daily basis. Protesters flooded the hallways, with Capitol police arresting hundreds of people at a time, including some celebrities, and overall largely unable to rein in the situation.

Trump’s trial, meanwhile, has been relatively mild-mannered in comparison. More than three dozen protesters were arrested last week, at the only large, organized demonstration of the trial. And only a single protester has interrupted the proceedings on the Senate floor, which stretched for dozens of hours over three weeks.

Gone are the movie stars and models leading demonstrations and staging sit-ins, as they did during the Kavanaugh hearings. The celebrity sightings during Trump’s trial have been few, with Alyssa Milano — who took in the early days of the proceedings from the public gallery — being the most prominent.

“A lot more intensity in Kavanaugh than this,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said. “I think this was a foregone conclusion.”

Inside the Capitol, the Kavanaugh confirmation battle drew enormous crowds of protesters, clad in colorful shirts and holding posters, into hallways inside the Senate office buildings.

Those close quarters led to viral moments like the two women — both sexual assault survivors — who shouted at then-Sen. Jeff Flake in an elevator with a CNN camera in his face. Minutes earlier, Flake had declared his plans to vote for Kavanaugh. And hours after the confrontation, the Arizona senator requested a delay in the Senate vote.

Protesters confront Flake ahead of Kavanaugh vote

The disruptions continued on the Senate floor itself, with multiple protesters forcibly removed from the chamber as they shouted out during the final vote to confirm Kavanaugh. Vice President Mike Pence, who sat in the chamber as president of the Senate, repeatedly used his gavel to attempt to restore order.

During Trump’s impeachment trial, however, the hordes of spectators have been replaced by throngs of police. The U.S. Capitol has been essentially on lockdown, with Senate staff eager to avoid a repeat of the Kavanaugh hearings.

The Capitol press corps has been penned behind rope lines, while senators have been escorted to and from the chamber, and sometimes, all the way to their vehicles outside. Staff have been intent to keep cable news’ cameras out of their faces.

For the Senate’s small number of swing votes, there is still a vitriolic response pouring into their offices: Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has received threatening voicemails in the run-up to impeachment — on par with the death threats she received amid the Kavanaugh vote.

In some ways, the confirmation vote carried a more emotional toll than other political debates on Capitol Hill, involving the highly sensitive and personal subject of sexual assault. Kavanaugh’s hearings stirred up long-seated tensions over how Washington has treated abuse victims and their accusers, at a time when much of the nation was uniting behind the #MeToo movement.

That debate even spurred fights within the Democratic Party: Progressives argued Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer didn’t do enough to keep his Democratic Caucus in line, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein was pilloried for not revealing earlier a letter from Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were both teens.

Senators from both sides point to another big difference between 2018 and now — Trump’s fate, unlike Kavanaugh, has never seriously been in question.

“The outcome is pretty much known as this point,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), when asked to compare the two processes in the Senate.

“I don't think this has been as stressful for members as Kavanaugh was because the outcome was understood,” added Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

When the Senate debated Kavanaugh’s fate, Republicans controlled the chamber by a razor-thin 51-49 majority. Just two GOP senators would have been enough to sink the nomination, though in the end, only Sen. Lisa Murkowski remained opposed.

Trump’s impeachment trial, however, had only one real moment of uncertainty— whether four Republicans would buck their party to vote with Democrats to summon witnesses. It was a crucial question that, had it been successful, could have reshaped the trial and prolonged it for weeks or even months.

In the end, the suspense was short-lived. Only two Republicans — Collins and freshman Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah — voted for witnesses.

Even without the protesters, the Kavanaugh confirmation was a spectacle: Kavanaugh himself fiercely shot down the allegations against him. He repeatedly got into contentious back-and-forths with lawmakers, and, at times, was so emotional that he broke down in tears on the stand. For her part, Blasey Ford offered emotionally raw, captivating testimony.

During the impeachment trial, Trump has not appeared on Capitol Hill and has even been relatively restrained on Twitter. His defense was mounted entirely by his team of lawyers, whose presentations relied on constitutional technicalities and impassioned rationalizations for the president’s actions.

And unlike the Kavanaugh debate, the Senate voted 51 to 49 on Friday to not allow additional witnesses. Throughout the trial, the House managers resorted to playing clips of the initial witnesses public testimony last year.

Senators did lament the long-term ramifications of these two hugely partisan flashpoints in modern American history — the further eroding of the Senate’s long-standing institutions and norms.

“It’s going to further push us to be electoral monsters in which all we care about is gaining the majority,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), noting the rules changes in recent years severely undercut the power of the minority.

“I’m now confident in this belief than ever before: We’re going to become the House of Representatives in less than five years,” he added. “That’s the consequence here.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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