Sen. Joe Manchin praised President Donald Trump’s handling of the allegations facing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh over the weekend in a private telephone call, thanking the president for supporting an FBI investigation and his relative public restraint.
The West Virginia Democrat, one of five remaining undecided senators, had a different verdict on Wednesday after Trump attacked Christine Blasey Ford’s account of her alleged assault by Kavanaugh.
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“It’s awful … very wrong,” Manchin said of Trump’s rhetoric, declining to weigh in on whether his vote has been affected. “But this stoked things up last night in the fire, and it didn’t help.”
After two weeks in which Trump mostly focused his attacks on Democrats, his about-face has jolted the undecided senators who will determine whether Kavanaugh will be confirmed in the coming days. Manchin and Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska all criticized Trump sharply for his remarks, reactions taken as unhelpful by GOP leaders.
Those three Republicans in particular have frayed or nonexistent relationships with the president, and Republicans playing point on Kavanaugh’s confirmation were visibly frustrated with Trump changing up his tactics as a vote on Kavanaugh appears imminent. While top Republicans said Trump was merely echoing the doubts raised about Ford’s timeline and lack of corroboration, they acknowledge that his comments don’t get them any closer to confirmation and may actually be a setback.
“I wish he’d just let us handle it,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the GOP’s chief vote-counter. “This is really in the hands of the Senate right now and not anybody else. It’s up to us to demonstrate we can handle this.”
“That’s just not helpful. I understand his concerns about consistencies in her statements in all of that … but do it in a respectful way,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP senator.
Until Tuesday night, the prevailing sentiment among Republicans was that the president has acquitted himself relatively well during Kavanaugh’s rocky nomination process. He had stayed away from alienating GOP senators he needs to vote for Kavanaugh, a marked change from when he tried to whip Murkowski and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to vote to repeal Obamacare — efforts that backfired and contributed to a failed vote.
And the feeling among Republicans as they broke for the day Tuesday afternoon was of positive momentum: They expect an FBI report on Kavanaugh to land as soon as Wednesday afternoon and are hopeful it will exonerate the nominee in the view of on-the-fence senators.
Trump had praised Ford as “credible” just days ago. But at a rally in Mississippi on Tuesday, Trump appeared to mock her, acting out his impression of Ford’s answers in testimony last Thursday.
“How did you get home? ‘I don’t remember.’ How’d you get there? ‘I don’t remember.’ Where is the place? ‘I don’t remember,’“ the president said. “‘I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember.‘“
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president’s remarks merely echo those of Rachel Mitchell, the Arizona sex crimes prosecutor who questioned Ford last week and wrote a memo summing up issues with Ford’s testimony.
“He was stating facts that were given during Dr. Ford’s testimony, and the Senate has to make a decision based on those facts,” Sanders said.
But senators close to Trump were unenthused.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who electrified Trump supporters with a fiery defense of Kavanaugh last week, had a dour assessment of Trump’s remarks.
“President Trump went through a factual rendition that I didn’t particularly like, and I would tell him to knock it off,” he said Wednesday at The Atlantic Ideas Festival in Washington, D.C.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he hoped it was just a “momentary” change in Trump‘s tactics, rather than a permanent shift of the president going on offense against Ford. But he said Trump’s broadside “would have been better left unsaid.”
“He feels deeply that people are not being treated fairly,” said Hatch, a top Kavanaugh defender. Murkowski, Collins and Flake “are pretty honest people. I hope in the end they’ll be all right. And I think they will be.”
Yet the reaction to Trump’s attacks on Ford from Manchin and those three Republicans have to be troubling to anybody hoping to confirm Kavanaugh. Flake called the mockery “kind of appalling.” Murkowski said Trump‘s remarks are “wholly inappropriate” and that she is “taking everything into account” when evaluating Kavanaugh.
“I thought those comments were wrong,” Collins said. Asked whether they affect her vote, she would only say: “The president shouldn’t have made those comments. And that is all I have to say.”
A fifth undecided senator, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, has not commented on Trump’s remarks on Ford.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who knows Kavanaugh personally and speaks regularly to Collins and Murkowski, visited with Collins on Wednesday morning as reporters and protesters besieged her office. He was unsure whether Trump’s comments could turn undecided senators against Kavanaugh, but summed up Republicans’ view succinctly: “They were not appropriate.”
John Bresnahan, Elana Schor and Matthew Choi contributed to this report.