President Trump, Brett Kavanaugh And Beer

Oct 2, 2018
Originally published on October 2, 2018 11:56 pm

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 beer 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 whether 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 AA 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 have 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 underage 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.

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The fight to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court continues on Capitol Hill. By the end of this week, the FBI is expected to deliver findings from its expanded background check on the judge. That inquiry is looking into claims of sexual assault. And now, there is also growing talk about Kavanaugh's comments on his drinking and whether his remarks were truthful. We're going to take some time now to go through what's been said and how the stories line up. First, here is President Trump yesterday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I watched him. I was surprised at how vocal he was about the fact that he likes beer and he's had a little bit of difficulty. I mean, he talked about things that happened when he drank.

SHAPIRO: Others heard Kavanaugh's testimony differently. Here's Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer this morning.


CHUCK SCHUMER: Based on the accounts by his high school and college classmates, he has grossly mischaracterized his relationship with alcohol. Common thread - Judge Kavanaugh repeatedly tiptoes around the truth.

SHAPIRO: To help guide us through these remarks and the interpretations of them, NPR's Tamara Keith is here. Hi, Tam.


SHAPIRO: You want to begin with Kavanaugh's first public comments about his drinking?

KEITH: Yes. That was a Fox News interview that he did with Martha MacCallum. This was before the hearing. He started by describing his high school life in this way.


BRETT KAVANAUGH: I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, a Jesuit high school, where I was focused on academics and athletics, going to church every Sunday at Little Flower, working on my service projects and friendship.

KEITH: He also did mention the other parts of it, the partying.


KAVANAUGH: And, yes, people might have had too many beers on occasion, and people generally in high school - I think all of us have probably done things we look back on in high school and regret or cringe a bit. But I'm - that's not what we're talking about.

KEITH: You could come away from most of that interview thinking here's someone who was really studious and didn't really have time for that much partying. But he was asked in the interview by Martha MacCallum whether he ever drank so much that he couldn't remember the night before.


KAVANAUGH: No, that never happened.

MARTHA MACCALLUM: You never said to anyone I don't remember anything about last night.


SHAPIRO: So that's the description he gave Fox News. Several days later, he spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee under oath, and here's what he said in his opening statements.


KAVANAUGH: I drank beer with my friends - 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.

SHAPIRO: And that set the stage for many hours of conversation between Kavanaugh and Senators about beer.

KEITH: Yes. There were probably two dozen references to beer during the hearing, and Senators asked about it on a number of occasions, including Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who is a Democrat and asked Kavanaugh about yearbook entries where he referenced a ralph club.


KAVANAUGH: You know, I've got a weak stomach, whether it's with beer or with spicy food or anything.

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: So the vomiting that you reference in the ralph club reference related to the consumption of alcohol.

KAVANAUGH: Senator, I was the top of my class academically, busted my butt in school, captain of the varsity basketball team, got into Yale College.

KEITH: What you hear there is something that we heard a lot, which was Kavanaugh at times deflecting, trying to avoid going into great detail. But when senators tried to get him to go into specifics, he deflected and, in a couple of cases, pushed back, throwing the questions back at the senators, including this exchange with Whitehouse.


WHITEHOUSE: Did the word ralph you used in your yearbook relate to alcohol?

KAVANAUGH: I already said - I already answered 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...


KAVANAUGH: Do you like beer, Senator, or no? What do you like to drink?

WHITEHOUSE: Next one is...

KAVANAUGH: Senator, what do you like to drink?

SHAPIRO: We've also heard from a lot of Kavanaugh's classmates, who've contradicted the way Judge Kavanaugh portrayed himself and his drinking.

KEITH: Yes. They've come forward to a number of news organizations, saying, you know, he kind of whitewashed it. He wasn't fully forthcoming. He didn't really get into how much there was. He was described by some as stumbling drunk, frequently drank to excess, belligerent, sloppy. One recounted a night that he pledged his fraternity at Yale and there was a costume. Another recalled a night where there was a drink thrown and an altercation. And Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, asked about that, asked about a Yale classmate named Liz Swisher.


CHRIS COONS: She said, Brett Kavanaugh drank more than a lot of people. He'd end up slurring his words, stumbling. It's not credible for him to say he's had no memory lapses in the nights he drank to excess. I know because I drank with him. How should we assess that?

KAVANAUGH: She then goes on, if you - if you kept reading, and says she actually can't point to any specific instance like that.

COONS: The quote that jumped out at me was Brett was a sloppy drunk and I know because I drank with him. There's also in a separate setting...

KAVANAUGH: I don't think that - I don't - I do not think that's a fair characterization.

KEITH: And this back and forth - for people who are looking for Brett Kavanaugh not being fully truthful about his drinking, this back and forth would be where you would find that. There have been a lot of people who have come forward and said they think that actually was a pretty fair characterization. I should add, though, that the White House has delivered to me statements from a couple of people who Kavanaugh went to college with, including a suitemate who says that he saw Kavanaugh not just at the end of the night but also in the morning and said that he did not see behavior that involved blackouts or anything at the level that has been described by others.

SHAPIRO: So what do you make of these dueling narratives that we heard represented by President Trump and Senator Schumer having listened to the testimony about whether he was truthful or not?

KEITH: President Trump said today that lying to Congress would not be acceptable, but President Trump does not believe that Kavanaugh lied to Congress. He believes, and talking to people at the White House who are working on Kavanaugh's nomination, they believe that in Kavanaugh's opening statement, that clip that we played earlier where he says I drank to excess, I drank a lot of beer, I liked beer and I did things that I look back on and cringe, that that, although it is broad and not specific, covers just about everything. They say, you know, he admits to everything except blacking out. And when it comes to blacking out, that is much more difficult to answer definitively.

SHAPIRO: Is all of this likely to have an impact on the three or so senators who appear to be on the fence?

KEITH: It's hard to know. Those three Republican senators say that they are waiting for the FBI investigation to come through. They keep getting asked in hallways by reporters whether lying matters to them. But, you know, the definition of lying may be different from Chuck Schumer and Democrats, who are predisposed to have concerns about this nomination, than it is from Republicans and President Trump and Kavanaugh's backers, who say this started with sexual assault and now you're talking about whether he threw a drink at somebody at a bar at Yale.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tamara Keith. Thanks a lot, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.