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Trump stokes tensions over confirmation battle as Kavanaugh set to take seat on the bench

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Washington on Sept. 4, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer.

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump further politicized an already contentious Supreme Court confirmation battle Monday evening, beginning a ceremonial swearing in for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh by apologizing to both Kavanaugh and his family "for the terrible pain and suffering" he said they were forced to endure.

"Those who step forward to serve our country deserve a fair and dignified evaluation, not a campaign of political and personal destruction based on lies and deception," Trump said in the East Room of the White House. "What happened to the Kavanaugh family violates every notion of fairness, decency and due process."

Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Court was marred by accusations of sexual misconduct and Trump used the ceremony to press a message he believes resonates with his base in the face of the #MeToo movement - "In our country, a man or a woman, must always be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty," he said - before turning to Kavanaugh and asserting: "I must state that you sir, under historic scrutiny, were proven innocent."

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In fact, no definitive conclusions were reached during the confirmation process regarding Christine Blasey Ford's allegation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school and accusations of sexual misconduct in high school and college by two other women. Kavanaugh denied the allegations and Republicans pushed his nomination forward arguing no corroborating evidence or witnesses had been produced.

The result was a nation left bitterly divided over who was telling the truth and Kavanaugh was confirmed in a historically thin vote for a Supreme Court justice.

Since Kavanaugh was confirmed Saturday, Trump has seemed more interested in inflaming rather than reducing the tensions over his Supreme Court pick amid questions over whether the high court is becoming too politicized.

Trump's comments Monday evening came hours after he said it was "an insult to the American public" for Democrats to consider impeaching Kavanaugh if they take control of Congress after the midterm elections and predicted that Republicans would benefit at the polls following the chaotic confirmation process.

As he departed the White House for a brief trip to Orlando Monday afternoon, Trump lauded Kavanaugh as a "brilliant jurist" and blamed Democrats for the focus on the allegations of sexual misconduct that dominated debate in the weeks before the nominee's Senate confirmation Saturday.

"The way they really tortured him and his family, I thought it was a disgrace," Trump said. "A brilliant jurist, a man that did nothing wrong, a man that was caught up in a hoax that was set up by the Democrats using the Democrats' lawyers, and now they want to impeach him."

Though Kavanaugh has already been sworn in, taking both of his oaths - one is constitutional, the other judicial - Saturday night at the Supreme Court, Monday's ceremony, over which Justice Anthony Kennedy presided, gave Trump the opportunity to tout his Supreme Court pick.

The White House ceremony, which included a cocktail reception and a band, in some ways felt like a cross between a campaign rally and a wedding reception. In addition to all of the Supreme Court justices, attendees included conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.

Kavanaugh seemed aware of the cloud that hung over his ascension to the nation's highest court and attempted to downplay the partisan tensions that burned during the Senate's consideration of his nomination. He promised Monday to "take this office with gratitude and no bitterness" following the "contentious and emotional" confirmation process that he said "did not change me."

"My approach to judging remains the same: A good judge must be an umpire, a neutral and impartial decider, that favors no litigant or policy," he said.

Kavanaugh did make note of the battle that surrounded his confirmation, pointing out the senators and White House aides, including White House counsel Donald McGahn, who helped push his nomination through.

"I thank the members of the United States Senate - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for his leadership and steady resolve," he said.

Surrounded by his wife, Ashley, and two young daughters, Kavanaugh also briefly acknowledged the barriers he said that women in the workforce still face and touted his commitment to hiring female law clerks.

"I'm proud that all four of my newly hired law clerks at the Supreme Court are women, a first in the history of the Supreme Court," he said.

While liberal activists have called for impeaching Kavanaugh, many Democratic lawmakers have tried to tamp down such talk in recent days.

"I think that's premature," Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "I think, frankly, we are just less than a month away from an election. Folks who feel very strongly one way or the other about the issues in front of us should get out and vote and participate."

Even before the allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced, some Democrats questioned Kavanaugh's truthfulness during his initial Senate confirmation hearing. "Untruthful testimony, under oath and on the record," Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., said in a tweet.

More recently, Democrats have cast doubt on Kavanaugh's account of his drinking while a teenager, an issue that came up repeatedly during a Senate hearing that included testimony from Kavanaugh and Ford, who accused him of drunkenly assaulting her while they were in high school.

Two other accusers stepped forward in the closing weeks of Kavanaugh's confirmation process to allege that he had behaved inappropriately with them while in high school and college.

"It was all made up, it was fabricated, and it was a disgrace," Trump said of the allegations of one of Kavanaugh's other accusers.

Democrats have said that an FBI investigation into the allegations that Trump ordered was too limited in scope to be useful. Trump and Senate Republican leaders agreed to the FBI probe at the request of Republican senators whose support for Kavanaugh appeared to be wavering.

Trump predicted that Democrats would pay a price in the midterm elections.

"I think you're going to see a lot of things happen on November 6th that would not have happened before," he said. "The American public has seen this charade."

"I think a lot of Democrats are going to vote Republican," Trump added. "The main base of the Democrats have shifted so far left that we'll end up being Venezuela. This country would end up being Venezuela."

Speaking later Monday at the National Press Club, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said that based on his own travels over the past several days, he believes the Republican base "is very much activated" as a result of the Kavanaugh fight.

Kavanaugh's ceremonial swearing-in has some historical precedent, as most of the current members of the Supreme Court had some White House aspect to their oath-takings, even if they already had been done so privately and even started work.

There are two exceptions: Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Both were nominated by President Barack Obama, and as a sign of independence he welcomed, took their oaths at the Supreme Court and opted against White House ceremonies.

Sotomayor and Kagan were likely deferring to retired Justice John Paul Stevens, who objected to the White House ceremonies.

"I believe that the ceremony should take place at the Supreme Court whenever possible," Stevens wrote in his book "Five Chiefs." "The three branches of our government are separate and equal. The president and the Senate play critical roles in the nomination and confirmation process. After that process ends, however, the 'separate but equal' regime takes over."

This article was written by Ashley Parker and John Wagner, reporters for The Washington Post.

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