Ashley Estes Kavanaugh did not have to be persuaded to sit by her husband’s side and vouch for the character of the man she married.
The high-profile role that she filled on Monday night, speaking publicly on behalf of her husband in a prime-time Fox News interview, made her the latest in a long line of political spouses who have chosen to speak up on behalf of their scandal-tarred men.
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But it also made her perhaps the most consequential of the #MeToo era, and a test of whether that playbook still works in a world where women are increasingly primed to believe the women accusers.
Mrs. Kavanaugh has been thinking about her role more in survival terms, according to one person close to the couple. For the past week, the wife of the man chosen by President Donald Trump to sit on the Supreme Court has been an equal partner in Brett Kavanaugh’s growing frustration, as he has remained silent in the face of multiple allegations of sexual assault that took place when he was in high school and college.
“She’s been frustrated by his frustration in being unable to come out and swing back,” said the person, who is involved in the confirmation process.
It was Kavanaugh’s idea to sit for a television interview and get ahead of Thursday’s hearing, two sources involved with the confirmation said, where one of his accusers, Christine Blasey Ford, is expected to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But his wife willingly jumped in with him, eager to clear the family name.
It was an uncomfortable role for her, people working closely with the couple said. But they noted she is also no newbie to politics.
It is Ashley Kavanaugh, who met her husband while working in the Bush White House in 2001, when she served as the president’s personal secretary, whose ties to the Bushes are stronger than those of her husband, who served as staff secretary in the administration.
Her lasting bond with the Bush family is also thought to be a big part of why President George W. Bush issued a statement on Kavanaugh’s behalf.
Once the personal secretary to the former president, today, Ashley Kavanaugh serves as the town manager for the village of Chevy Chase, Section 5, where the person close to the couple described her as “the mayor” of the community.
In the Fox News interview, she took her place next to her husband dressed in a bulky, zip-up jacket, a knee-length skirt and pearls, playing what has become an almost hackneyed role in politics.
“This process is incredibly difficult,” she said, her hands folded in her lap, notably not touching her husband’s. “Harder than we imagined, and we imagined it might be hard. At the end of the day, our faith is strong and we know that we’re on the right path. We’re just going to stick to it.”
The process has, indeed, been more difficult than either Kavanaugh anticipated: a source familiar with the prep said the Supreme Court nominee needed some time to wrap his head around the fact that he would be forced to make personal revelations — like the fact that he was a virgin into his 20s — in the interview.
Later, her voice cracking, Mrs. Kavanaugh added that she never doubted her husband when she first heard the allegations. “He’s decent, he’s kind, he’s good,” she said. “I know his heart. This is not consistent with Brett.”
Ashley Kavanaugh looked like she was holding back more anger than she was prepared to share on prime-time TV when she said of Ford’s accusation, “I don’t understand it. I know Brett, I know who he is. … I don’t know what happened to her, and I don’t want to go there. I feel badly for her through this process. This process is not right.”
Kavanaugh’s wife was not simply trotted out for television. Over the course of his confirmation battle, she has been part of the small team of former Bush aides who have served as his brain trust. That group, which functions separately from a White House operation that is also dedicated to helping Kavanaugh’s confirmation through, includes Dan Bartlett, a former counselor to President George W. Bush and Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chair who helped Bush through the process of nominating Justice Samuel Alito.
But her role on Monday night put her in different, historic company.
In 1991, Clarence Thomas’ wife, Ginny, sat behind him, wiping away tears while her husband rebutted Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment.
Hillary Clinton saved her husband’s entire political career in 1992, when she sat next to him in a “60 Minutes” interview and delivered the now infamous line with her now-disappeared Southern twang: “You know, I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said. “I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together. And you know, if that’s not enough for people, then heck — don’t vote for him.”
Wendy Vitter, the wife of Sen. David Vitter, stood steely by his side in 2007 when he confessed to “past failings,” referring to his phone number listed on the call log of a D.C. escort service. Silda Spitzer stood teary-eyed in 2008 next to her husband, Eliot Spitzer, as he announced his resignation as governor of New York, after it was revealed that he visited a high-end hooker when visiting Washington.
Kavanaugh allies were quick to point out that the situation is different because the allegations against the Supreme Court nominee did not happen well into his adult life, or involved any incident of him cheating on his wife. Unlike the other women, Ashley Kavanaugh cannot be called a “wronged” woman.
In the Monday night interview, Ashley Kavanaugh came across as more emotional and more genuine than her husband, whose lawyerly instincts had him repeating that he “wanted a fair process” where he “could be heard” rather than offering off-the-cuff answers to questions.
Kavanaugh’s team acknowledged she was crucial to the strategy. “You can’t not have your wife by you,” said one person working with him.
The question is whether that endorsements still sways public sentiment.
“I understand why a wife would want to stand by her husband in tough times,” said Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen. “And he might even be a great husband. We have seen time and again women support men who have been guilty because they themselves never witnessed the bad behavior. People finally realize that no longer means what Dr. Ford and others allege didn’t happen.”
Rosen added: “I think the era of the faithful wife making a difference in whether people believe the husband is over.”