Drinking beer became such a theme in last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that Saturday Night Live spoofed Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s many references to drinking beers with his friends.
But there are serious questions underlying all the focus on beer: whether Kavanaugh was fully forthcoming in his testimony and what his behavior was like when drunk.
During his Rose Garden press conference Monday, President Trump was asked whether he would withdraw Kavanaugh’s nomination if it was determined that he lied about his drinking under oath.
“I was surprised at how vocal he was about the fact that he likes beer,” Trump said. “And he’s had a little bit of difficulty. I mean, he talked about things that happened when he drank. I mean, this is not a man that said that alcohol was — that he was perfect with respect to alcohol.”
Later Trump again characterized Kavanaugh as having described a problem with alcohol when he was younger. “I watched that hearing and I watched a man saying that he did have difficulty as a young man with drink,” Trump said.
Kavanaugh never went that far in his testimony, speaking mostly in general terms. “I drank beer with my friends,” Kavanaugh said in his opening statement. “Almost everyone did. Sometimes I had too many beers. Sometimes others did. I liked beer. I still like beer. But I did not drink beer to the point of blacking out, and I never sexually assaulted anyone.”
He added later that in high school he and his friends sometimes “did goofy or stupid things,” things that he said he looks back on and cringes.
Democratic senators pressed for more details about his drinking, whether a reference in his yearbook to the “ralph club” was related to vomiting from drinking too much and whether he had ever forgotten details after a night of drinking. In both cases Kavanaugh pushed back on the senators, asking them if they had ever drunk too much.
WHITEHOUSE: And did the world “ralph” you used in your yearbook…
KAVANAUGH: I already — I already answered…
WHITEHOUSE: … refer (ph) to alcohol?
KAVANAUGH: … the question. If you’re…
WHITEHOUSE: Did it relate to alcohol? You haven’t answered that.
KAVANAUGH: I like beer. I like beer. I don’t know if you do…
KAVANAUGH: … do you like beer, Senator, or not?
WHITEHOUSE: Um, next…
KAVANAUGH: What do you like to drink?
WHITEHOUSE: Next one is…
KAVANAUGH: Senator, what do you like to drink?
At one point, rather than answer a question about alcohol consumption, Kavanaugh began reciting his academic and athletic credentials. He also opaquely blamed a disagreement between college roommates for one college classmate’s claim that he was aggressive or even belligerent when drunk.
KLOBUCHAR: OK. I’m not going to ask about the yearbook. So most people have done some drinking in high school and college, and many people even struggle with alcoholism and binge drinking. My own dad struggled with alcoholism most of his life, and he got in trouble for it, and there were consequences. He is still in A.A. at age 90, and he’s sober, and in his words, he was pursued by grace, and that’s how he got through this. So in your case, you have said, here and other places, that you never drank so much that you didn’t remember what happened. But yet, we have heard — not under oath, but we have heard your college roommate say that you did drink frequently. These are in news reports. That you would sometimes be belligerent. Another classmate said it’s not credible for you to say you didn’t have memory lapses. So drinking is one thing.
KAVANAUGH: I don’t think — I — I actually don’t think that’s — the second quote’s correct. On the first quote, if you wanted, I provided some material that’s still redacted about the situation with the freshman year roommate, and I don’t really want to repeat that in a public hearing, but just so you know, there were three people in a room, Dave White, Jamie Roach (ph) and me, and it was a contentious situation where Jamie did not like Dave White. I was — at all, and I’m in this…
KLOBUCHAR: OK, I — I just…
KLOBUCHAR: OK. Drinking is one thing, but the concern is about truthfulness, and in your written testimony, you said sometimes you had too many drinks. Was there ever a time when you drank so much that you couldn’t remember what happened, or part of what happened the night before?
KAVANAUGH: No, I — no. I remember what happened, and I think you’ve probably had beers, Senator, and — and so I…
KLOBUCHAR: So you’re saying there’s never been a case where you drank so much that you didn’t remember what happened the night before, or part of what happened.
KAVANAUGH: It’s — you’re asking about, you know, blackout. I don’t know. Have you?
KLOBUCHAR: Could you answer the question, Judge? I just — so you — that’s not happened. Is that your answer?
KAVANAUGH: Yeah, and I’m curious if you have.
KLOBUCHAR: I have no drinking problem, Judge.
KAVANAUGH: Yeah, nor do I.
KLOBUCHAR: OK, thank you.
KAVANAUGH: Just going to say I started my last colloquy by saying to Senator Klobuchar how much I respect her and respected what she did at the last hearing. And she asked me a question at the end that I responded by asking her a question and I didn’t — sorry, I did that. This is a tough process. I’m sorry about that.
KLOBUCHAR: I appreciate that. I — I would like to add, when you have a parent that’s a alcoholic, you’re pretty careful about drinking.
Kavanaugh’s sometimes evasive answers about drinking has prompted several people who knew him in high school and college to come forward in recent days.
“When Brett got drunk, he was often belligerent and aggressive,” wrote Yale classmate Chad Ludington in a statement released on Sunday and posted by the New York Times. “On one of the last occasions I purposely socialized with Brett, I witnessed him respond to a semi-hostile remark, not by defusing the situation, but by throwing his beer in the man’s face and starting a fight that ended with one of our mutual friends in jail.” In a report published online Monday, the Times provided more details about the 1985 incident.
The White House distributed statements from two other college classmates who said they never saw such behavior.
“I not only socialized with Brett, but I was there with him at the end of the night when we came home, and there in the morning when we got up. I never saw Brett black out or not be able to remember the prior evening’s events, nor did I ever see Brett act aggressive, hostile, or in a sexually aggressive manner to women. Brett was and is a good-natured, kind, and friendly person, to men and women,” said former dorm suitemate Dan Murphy in a statement. “The behavior I’ve heard other people want to attribute to him, but from people who did not live with Brett and therefore not in the same position to observe, is simply wrong, and such behavior is incompatible with what I know to be true.”
Regardless of what Trump said in the Rose Garden on Monday, those in the White House working to secure Kavanaugh’s confirmation aren’t copping to the idea that he had “difficulty as a young man with drink.”
Raj Shah, the White House spokesman handling Kavanaugh’s confirmation, said that what Kavanaugh describes is pretty typical high school and college behavior, that he has in general terms “acknowledged pretty much everything,” including underaged drinking and at times drinking too much.
How to explain Trump’s characterization of Kavanaugh? Trump’s views on alcohol are shaped by his own life experience.
At an opioid event last year at the White House, Trump talked about his brother Fred, who from a young age told him never to drink. “He had a problem with alcohol,” Trump said of his brother.
“He had a very, very, very tough life because of alcohol — believe me, very, very tough, tough life,” Trump said. “He was a strong guy, but it was a tough, tough thing that he was going through.”
It is perhaps ironic that beer would come to play such a central role in the controversy over the Supreme Court pick of a president who so spurns alcohol.
“I’m just saying, I’m not a drinker,” Trump volunteered during the press conference Monday. “I can honestly say I never had a beer in my life, OK?” Though, he said, he has been to parties in high school and college where people were drinking, going “crazy.”
“They were 16, 17 years old, and I saw a lot of it. Does that mean that they can’t do something that they want to do with their life?” Trump asked.
And, that, according to Shah was Trump’s point: Kavanaugh “drank a lot” (to use Trump’s phrasing) but that was a long time ago and should not overshadow his accomplished career and qualifications to be a Supreme Court justice.
Kavanaugh’s critics say he simply hasn’t been forthcoming about his drinking all those years ago, including when he was under oath testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. They argue it is relevant, both as a matter of truthfulness but also because alcohol can affect behavior and memory, and Christine Blasey Ford alleges Kavanaugh was stumbling drunk when he assaulted her — an event he strenuously denies.