Breaking News Emails
WASHINGTON — The nation's capital is critically ill.
"D.C. is truly disgusting right now on both sides," a top Trump ally told NBC News shortly after Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., announced that he wanted a one-week delay before a final confirmation vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh Friday afternoon.
A former Democratic Senate chief of staff who didn't want to be named for fear of retribution used Kavanaugh's words to describe the atmosphere surrounding the nomination: "a national disgrace."
In the past, major events or cultural shifts often have unlocked Washington's frozen institutions — the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the 2008 financial crisis and the gay-rights movement among them — and presidential nominations to the high court or Cabinet posts have routinely attracted votes from senators of both parties who believed either in the quality of the candidate or the president's prerogative to make his picks.
The collision of Kavanaugh's nomination with the #MeToo movement — a demand for justice for victims of sexual assault — has paralyzed Washington and turned the once-solemn Supreme Court confirmation process into a theater of human suffering. It is the twisted result, one chief of staff to a Democratic senator said, of the two parties breaking their own system in a tit-for-tat brawl over nominations that led Democrats to end filibusters on lower-court judges and Cabinet nominees and Republicans to respond by doing the same for the high court.
"It's like watching a really bad movie where the kids learn all the wrong lessons at the end," the aide said.
The Senate is just one piece of a political system afflicted by petty grievance, political blood thirst and the distrust of a nation. But this week, it was a perfect microcosm.
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee transformed into a macabre version of "Judge Judy" — a "he said, she said" spectacle that Sen. Flake presciently said was likely to leave "as much doubt as certainty going out of the room."
Christine Blasey Ford testified that Kavanaugh held her down, covered her mouth and tried to rape her while he and a friend, Mark Judge, laughed. It was gut-wrenching, and she was credible, even according to many Republicans who want to see Kavanaugh confirmed.
Then an outraged and tearful Kavanaugh swore that he'd never sexually assaulted Ford or anyone else and accused Democrats of engaging in a conspiracy to destroy him personally as revenge for past wounds, including the 2016 election, his work on the investigation that led to President Bill Clinton's impeachment and — unspoken but obvious — Senate Republicans' refusal to even consider confirming President Barack Obama's last Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.
By the end, there was nothing left in the room but heartache.
Ford said she was "terrified" to testify, and her graphic description of her attack, an inspired act of bravery to many Americans, was nothing short of horrific.
Kavanaugh said he'd been "through hell and then some."
Only one person, Judge, may know which account was the truth, and he was not invited or compelled to testify.
There was little indication that the exercise, which lacked testimony from the key witness — Judge — changed the minds of anyone who watched it, including the handful of senators who joined Flake's call for an FBI probe.
"I've gotten calls from sensible people on both sides who are immovable on this issue, which is tragic for both [Ford] and the judge and their families," the Trump ally said. "It's sad for our country."
He added that he believes Trump's "momentum for the American people" on issues he campaigned on, including appointing judges, "has caused a deeper divide as the entrenched in the parties need to remain relevant."
Senate Republicans are furious at what they see as a campaign to deny Trump and Kavanaugh in order to push the confirmation process past the midterm elections and, if they win the Senate, keep the seat open until the next presidential election.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., became so angry that he lashed out at colleagues and then, in an appearance on Sean Hannity's Fox program Thursday night, he walked away from the GOP's careful effort to avoid taking shots at Ford.
"I am more convinced than ever that he didn’t do it, that he’s the right guy to be on the court, that Ms. Ford has a problem and destroying Judge Kavanaugh’s life won’t fix her problem," Graham said.
Graham, who noted that he'd supported two of Obama's Supreme Court picks before joining fellow Republicans in blocking Garland, used to be one of the last remaining preachers of comity in the Senate.
Senate Democrats, who were taking a chunk out of Kavanaugh and, with Flake's help, winning a reprieve from a final vote, were less fiery on Thursday and Friday. But their constituents remained enflamed over the possible confirmation of Kavanaugh.
On Friday, Trump appeared to take it all in stride, accepting a delay that appeared to be necessary for securing the votes of Flake and Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.
"I’ve ordered the FBI to conduct a supplemental investigation to update Judge Kavanaugh’s file," Trump said Friday afternoon in a tweet. "As the Senate has requested, this update must be limited in scope and completed in less than one week.”
In a statement released at the same time as Trump's, Kavanaugh was resigned to ongoing participation in a process that turned him and Ford into the tips of poisoned partisan spears.
"I’ve done everything they have requested and will continue to cooperate," he said.
Debra Katz, a lawyer for Ford, said her client "welcomes this step in the process, and appreciates the efforts of Senators Flake, Murkowski, Manchin and Collins — and all other senators who have supported an FBI investigation — to ensure it is completed before the Senate votes on Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination."
But in contrast to Trump, she said "no artificial limits as to time or scope should be imposed on this investigation."
In the short term, the outcome was a victory of sorts for Democrats, who wanted FBI intervention.
But there are no real winners right now in Washington's broken political system. The dysfunctional diagnosis is clear. The prognosis is cloudier.
"It’s so degraded, the American people have a right to be disgusted by it," the Democratic chief of staff said.