Picture this: A controversial, deeply unpopular president mired in scandal makes a Supreme Court nomination that his party is desperately trying to jam through the process before virtually anything is known about the nominee. Then, in the middle of it, an anonymous senior official in the president’s administration pens an op-ed in The New York Times that lays out serious questions about the president’s fitness for office and the dangers he poses to the country. You’d think that conversation in the media would focus on the fact that this president — who is so unstable that his own senior staff members are sounding the alarm — is about to make a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.
You’d be wrong.
Let’s start at the beginning. In late June, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, and President Donald Trump moved quickly to nominate Brett Kavanaugh — a former George W. Bush administration official who currently sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — to replace him. Kavanaugh’s path to confirmation has carried all the hallmarks of the Trump administration: conflicts of interest, unprecedented secrecy, violations of norms, whiffs of corruption, and lies.
Senate Republicans have assisted the Trump White House in obscuring Kavanaugh’s full record, particularly related to his time at the Bush White House. Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) requested only 10 to 15 percent of the documents available from Kavanaugh’s time at the White House. According to Democrats, just 4 percent of Kavanaugh’s White House records were made public at the outset of confirmation hearings. Some 101,921 pages were not released due to a dubious, last-minute claim of executive privilege by the Trump administration. Additionally, mere hours before Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing was to begin, the administration dumped over 40,000 documents on the committee for members to somehow review before the hearing began.
On top of that, the documents were vetted and cleared by an outside team led by a Republican operative, attorney, and personal friend of Kavanaugh named William Burck before they were released to the Senate Judiciary Committee. This was an unprecedented move that the National Archives, which normally conducts such reviews, went out of its way to distance itself from the document production process, issuing a statement saying that this “has never happened before” and that it did not “represent the National Archives or the George W. Bush Presidential Library.”
Burck was a close colleague of Kavanaugh’s in the Bush administration, and more recently, as reported by Vox, he also “represented at least three current or former Trump White House officials” — White House counsel Don McGahn, former Trump chief of staff and Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus, and former senior White House adviser Steve Bannon — in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump campaign collusion with Russia. But that’s not all: Apparently, Republican leaders did initially think a more complete review of Kavanaugh’s record was appropriate … until they held a private meeting with McGahn in July and abruptly reversed course.
Even still, using the paucity of documents made available, senators have all but accused Kavanaugh of lying under oath during his 2004 and 2006 confirmation hearings to become a federal appeals court judge. Back then, to quote Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) from Wednesday’s confirmation hearing, Kavanaugh was questioned“extensively” about a Bush administration-era scandal in which “two Republican [congressional] staffers … regularly hacked into the private computer files of six Democratic senators,” stole thousands of files, then used those files “to assist in getting President Bush’s most controversial judicial nominees confirmed.” At the time, as Leahy explained, Kavanaugh repeatedly denied that he had any idea about these activities and claimed he had never received any of the stolen materials. We now know that’s a lie. During Kavanaugh’s first day of questioning, Leahy confronted him with an email clearly showing Kavanaugh was in possession of some of the stolen documents and strongly suggested that Republicans were withholding documents that showed that not only did Kavanaugh receive stolen documents, but he also knew damn well they were stolen. (Leahy showed additional stolen emails sent to Kavanaugh during the second day of questioning, including one with the subject line “spying.”)
Normally, a Supreme Court nominee apparently committing perjury during a confirmation hearing would be explosive news that’s covered extensively. Normally, reporters would be shouting about the records that continue to be withheld. Normally, they would ask, “What are they hiding?” Such scrutiny is even more important considering the the other major news story of the day — that a senior administration official published an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times confirming numerous other reports that the White House is a volatile shitshow run by a madman whose fitness for office is routinely questioned by the very people working for him.
If you thought that would be the tenor of the evening news coverage on September 5, you’d be wrong. For instance, none of the broadcast newscasts reported on the very real possibility — raised by evidence presented in the hearings — that Kavanaugh lied under oath about knowingly receiving stolen documents when he worked in the Bush administration. And the controversy surrounding the withholding of documents about his record was hardly mentioned at all. ABC and NBC News made no mention of the extremely contentious issue, while CBS News simply reported that “several Democrats also complained today, like they did yesterday, that they needed more documents to consider this nomination, but Republicans said that was just politics, that they had more documents on Kavanaugh than any nominee in history.”
Instead, the Beltway press has been far more interested in gossiping about the chaos within the White House than discussing what it expected to be “very long days” filled with “long, boring” testimony. A Media Matters review of the broadcast networks’ morning and evening news programs, for instance, showed that since the first day of Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings ended, the networks have spent over twice as much time covering leaked passages of Bob Woodward’s upcoming book Fear — which reported what we already knew about the volatile environment within the White House — and the anonymous op-ed than they did covering the Kavanaugh hearing.
What should have already been a newsworthy story about a scandalous process including a potential cover-up should have been even more newsworthy when you consider the fact that this was all happening in order to rush through a Supreme Court pick chosen by a person whose own staff says he isn’t fit to be in office.
You’d think the press would be interested in covering it.
Header image by Melissa Joskow / Media Matters