McConnell calls Trump on Kavanaugh tweets

After President Donald Trump tweeted criticism of the woman who came forward accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the President to say his tweets did not help, two people familiar with the call confirmed to CNN.

Posted: Sep 24, 2018 10:51 AM
Updated: Sep 24, 2018 11:06 AM

President Donald Trump embarks upon another "America First" crusade at the world's foremost diplomatic institution this week. For some Republicans, his absence from Washington comes at an opportune moment.

With at least six one-on-one meetings with global counterparts, a major foreign policy address, and a maiden run chairing the Security Council, aides hope this week's agenda at the United Nations General Assembly can sufficiently occupy the President's attention away from the Brett Kavanaugh sexual assault allegations, which most concur is best played out without Trump's intervention.

But already on Monday, Trump inserted himself into the fray, describing the latest claims of misconduct as spurious and non-credible.

"He is a fine man with an unblemished past and these are highly unsubstantiated statements from people represented by lawyers. We should look into the lawyers doing the representation," Trump said as he departed from an early morning session focused on global drug issues at UN headquarters.

"We'll see how it goes with the Senate. We'll see how it goes with the vote. I think it could be -- there's a chance that this could be one of the single most unfair, unjust things to happen to a candidate," the President said. "For people to come out of the woodwork from 36 years ago and 30 years ago and never mention it, all of a sudden it happens, in my opinion, it's totally political."

This week, even as Trump is looking to trumpet his protectionist foreign policy at the UN, the dramatic swirl of events surrounding expected testimony on Thursday morning from the woman who accuses Kavanaugh, Trump's Supreme Court pick, of sexually assaulting her in 1982 will consume Washington as well as the second allegation of inappropriate sexual behavior by Kavanaugh that was levied late Sunday, an incident which Kavanaugh and the White House quickly denied.

If the pivot toward global statesmanship means Trump can avoid inflaming an already precarious confirmation process, that would satisfy many Republican lawmakers, who are proceeding with caution amid a fraught political moment that coincides with a national reckoning on matters of sexual abuse and harassment.

Caution was the original strategy last week, when the allegation first emerged. Trump praised his nominee but avoided overt criticism of his accuser, a restraint aides watched with a mixture of relief and muted shock.

Those feelings turned to dismay when Trump threw off his bridle during a pre-dawn tweeting session from his hotel room in Las Vegas last Friday. He questioned Ford's credibility and asked why she did not report her assault to authorities at the time.

That was viewed by senior Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as deeply unhelpful. McConnell said as much to the President during a phone call later on Friday.

Since then, Trump has desisted in tweeting about Ford, or much of anything else. That is a pattern aides hope will continue as he embarks upon an intensive four days of diplomacy in his hometown.

But the prospect of Trump remaining quiet appeared to gain new uncertainty after a second allegation of inappropriate behavior was published in the New Yorker.

Trump's team discussed the latest allegations against Brett Kavanaugh with him over the course of Sunday, ahead of the story's publication, according to a White House official. Trump himself hadn't spoken to Kavanaugh by early evening.

Multiple senior officials in the White House privately expressed concerns last week that a second Brett Kavanaugh accuser would emerge in the coming days.

'America First' agenda in action

His first event on Monday -- a UN session focused on the worldwide drug problem -- is listed on his schedule as starting at 8:15 a.m., hours before his official day typically begins in Washington (Trump, an early riser, usually spends mornings in "executive time," which he uses to watch recorded cable news programs and sometimes tweet).

The rest of his agenda at the UN is designed as an unapologetic embrace of the "America First" creed that has, over the course of the last year, alienated traditional US allies, fostered budding trade wars, and led to questions about the entire liberal order.

"I've always said United Nations has tremendous potential but it has not lived up to that potential," Trump said in a video posted to Twitter on Sunday. "It's always been surprising to me that more things aren't resolved because you have all of these countries getting together in one location but it doesn't seem to get there. But I think it will."

Aides say he'll use his centerpiece address to the General Assembly on Tuesday morning to highlight issues of sovereignty, including decisions by the US to retreat from global institutions like the International Criminal Court and the UN Human Rights Council.

At the same time he'll trumpet achievements struck outside the parameters of international bodies, like his historic diplomatic opening with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. It was only a year ago that Trump derided Kim as "Rocket Man" from the UN's green marble rostrum.

Even though North Korea continues to advance its nuclear program, Trump has cited an absence of missile tests and the return of American solders' remains as signs of progress. He'll confer on Monday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who recently returned from Pyongyang and hopes to further the rapprochement, including potentially brokering a formal end to the Korean War.

Diplomacy in motion

Trump's itinerary in New York puts an emphasis on venues where he can project strength while avoiding awkward run-ins. He meets with his two chummiest global friends, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and French President Emmanuel Macron, along with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who openly praises Trump's decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

He's also slated to meet embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May, currently consumed with wrangling Brexit negotiations, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a strongman leader in the mold of some of Trump's preferred global partners.

The flurry of diplomatic engagements has kept Trump's team busy with preparations, though Trump himself is not known to prepare extensively for meetings with foreign leaders.

Aides say they expect Trump to remain abreast of the Kavanaugh developments from afar, even as he shuttles to meetings with friends and like-minded allies. In New York, he is also expected to engage his network of longtime friends and advisers during down moments, a glimpse of his past life as a brash real estate impresario. Trump has rarely returned to his hometown as President, citing the havoc his presence would wreak on traffic.

Since Trump first spoke at the UN a year ago, he has swapped out key national security aides for men more aligned with his worldview, including replacing Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and ousting national security adviser H.R. McMaster for John Bolton.

Bolton made his name with sharp elbows and an unapologetic antagonism of the world body as envoy to the UN during George W. Bush's administration. That pugilistic approach will be felt through Trump's four days at the annual gathering, including during a Security Council meeting on Wednesday focused on non-proliferation.

Trump originally intended the meeting to focus solely on Iran, where his decision to withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal brokered by the previous administration would loom large. Several of the council's other members were parties to the agreement and oppose Trump's exit. Determining that a session centered only on Iran would require an invitation to President Hassan Rouhani, Trump's aide's shifted the focus to the broader proliferation issue.

But Trump still seemed intent on his original mission when he tweeted last week, "I will Chair the United Nations Security Council meeting on Iran next week!"

The message caused some consternation among diplomats, though American officials downplayed any changes to the agenda.

Overshadowing events

Seemingly every time a President hopes to have a moment on the world stage, events have a way of intervening. Terrorist events, natural disasters or political intrigue have overshadowed many a foreign trip, both in Trump's tenure and his predecessors'.

The beginnings of such a scenario began to play out Sunday, as Trump officials fanned out across television airwaves to preview his message this week at the UN. Developments in Washington, however, remained front and center.

Speaking on CNN, Trump's UN ambassador Nikki Haley -- one of the administration's highest-profile women with whom the President will spend countless hours this week -- seemed to distance herself from his earlier tweets casting doubts on Christine Blasey Ford's credibility.

"Regardless, you never -- it's not something that we want to do, to blame the accuser or to try and second guess the accuser. We don't know the situation she was going through 35 years ago. We don't know the circumstances," Haley said.

"Every accuser always deserves the right to be heard, but at the same time, the accused deserves the right to be heard," she said.

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