When the Supreme Court’s draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade leaked, Sen. Susan Collins said she was flabbergasted, deeply troubled, even shocked. After all, soon-to-be-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had promised her in 2018 that Roe was a matter of settled law — despite his deeply conservative track record on abortion.
Turns out, Collins wasn’t just wrong about Kavanaugh. She was deliberately manipulated by Trump administration officials — and a future Supreme Court Justice — who viewed her as an easy mark.
Two former senior Trump White House officials tell Rolling Stone that the pro-choice Collins wasn’t even considered a serious threat to the devoutly conservative Kavanaugh. Instead, the team predicted she’d need only a vague assurance that the nominee would uphold the half-century-old ruling defending abortion rights.
And they were right.
“The thinking from Trump … and everybody else who worked to make this happen was that, as long as his nominees didn’t say anything stupid [on abortion] and let the Susan Collins-es of the world think what they needed to think and hear what they needed to hear, then it would get done,” said one of the ex-officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the team’s hearing preparations.
Some administration officials who worked on the Kavanaugh confirmation privately mocked Collins and her public posturing over Roe, the sources recalled, often with crass language such as calling her a “cheap date.”
In a statement, Collins’ team rejected the suggestion that she’d been duped or that her review of Kavanaugh’s record was lackluster. “That kind of sexist language is abhorrent,” Collins spokeswoman Annie Clark said in a statement, referring to the “cheap date” dig. “Senator Collins has voted to confirm 6 of the current 9 Supreme Court Justices, as well as Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. She considered the Kavanaugh nomination with a rigorous review process and an open mind. Any allegation to the contrary is false.”
But nearly four years after Collins voted for Kavanaugh on the grounds that he considered Roe settled law, Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — another Trump appointee who got Collins’ vote — have reportedly agreed to support a draft opinion overturning the landmark ruling.
Back in 2018, the Trump team and Senate GOP offices would regularly send guidance to outside organizations and top activists who were fervently supporting Kavanaugh, before and after Prof. Christine Blasey Ford came forward to say Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when both were teenagers. (Kavanaugh had repeatedly denied attacking her.) These groups had lists of senators who they were actively working on, to ensure that they remained in the “yes” column for Kavanaugh. But when it came to Collins, the guidance from Team Trump was, consistently, that she not be approached, according to two sources who were close to the White House. One of the reasons, a former top Trump aide says, is because the White House and Kavanaugh allies believed that a pressure campaign from the right would backfire, and that Collins would get to a “yes” on her own — assuming she got just the right verbal responses she wanted.
The Trump team’s apparent manipulation of Collins was part of a broader effort to smuggle in broad daylight anti-Roe justices onto the Supreme Court, an effort that was only somewhat complicated by Trump’s past statements on ending Roe and his nominees’ long anti-abortion records. But Team Trump managed to get the justices through what one former administration official describes as the Trump White House’s prolific reliance on “David Mamet talk,” a reference to some of the playwright’s famous dialogue that traffics in semantic acrobatics and manipulation of language and meaning.
This determination to give “the Susan Collins-es of the world” what they needed to get to a yes vote was especially clear in the mock hearings and prep sessions that the Trump administration held for Kavanaugh in the weeks leading up to his first confirmation hearings. According to multiple people familiar with the matter and others who were present for them, these mock hearings would include Kavanaugh, White House officials, former law clerks, and conservative outside advisers to the White House, and sometimes run as much as six hours long.
Trump aides and Kavanaugh allies, pretending to be U.S. senators grilling Trump’s nominee, would pass scribbled notes to one another, and whisper possible questions in each other’s ears, seeing if they could land a tough query that would knock Kavanaugh off his game. For instance, during one such mock hearing, an attendee asked the soon-to-be Supreme Court justice what he would do if his daughter came to him saying she had an unwanted, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and wished to terminate it. (Kavanaugh’s response was to state that he would treat her as his daughter, and that this was not the business of the Senate; he then pivoted to talking about abortion in the context of constitutional debate.)
Whenever the topic of abortion came up in his prep sessions, Kavanaugh knew what do say: effectively, nothing. Typically, he would give lengthy, detailed monologues on dissents, opinions, and precedents, and then, as was his standard, refuse to divulge how he thought he’d rule if the opportunity to overturn Roe ever came up.
“That’s how he operated,” said one of the people familiar with the matter. “It was his way of telling you, ‘I know a lot about this — but I’m not going to tell you how I’d rule’ … His idea was that saying it was long-standing precedent didn’t mean it couldn’t get overturned at some point … [Kavanaugh] gets the need to demonstrate knowledge about the law, but not to tip your hand about your opinions about a specific case or issue.”
The second ex-official recalls Trump himself echoing a similar sentiment in the weeks immediately following his nomination of Kavanaugh, saying in the Oval Office that Collins would fall in line, and that Kavanaugh “knows what to do.”
Another source who was in the room for some of these meetings tells Rolling Stone that Kavanaugh did not need to be told what to say in response to abortion-related questions. “It was instinct,” this person recalled. “Everyone in the room knew that when a [Trump] nominee says something about ‘precedent’ [in regards to Roe], pro-lifers know what that really means … If someone else [such as Susan Collins] wanted to interpret that differently, that’s their choice.”
Even with the act, it’s hard to believe that any Republican who voted for these nominees is really surprised at what their votes have brought. After all, the GOP’s tactical cynicism — which largely defined the Trump-era strategy for getting obvious Roe opponents their lifetime positions on the highest court in the land — never came as a surprise to numerous court observers, on the left or the right. Democratic politicians and activists had been messaging for years that a Republican victory in the 2016 presidential election could very well mean the fall of the landmark abortion-rights ruling. During that race against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Trump emphatically ran on the pledge that if he won, Roe would be toast, “automatically, in my opinion,” he vowed.
One of the former senior Trump White House officials simply concluded: “Nobody should get to play dumb” on this, adding: “[then-]President Trump said in public and in private that he was going to do this. The Republican Party and conservatives everywhere have said it. Who could possibly argue this was a secret?”
But if Collins’ words are to be taken at face value, it appears she was — somehow — surprised by Kavanaugh’s reported support of the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion.
“If this leaked draft opinion is the final decision and this reporting is accurate, it would be completely inconsistent with what Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh said in their hearings and in our meetings in my office,” Collins said in a written statement after the draft leaked in May. “Obviously, we won’t know each Justice’s decision and reasoning until the Supreme Court officially announces its opinion in this case.”
But a quick search of the public record at the time offered up plenty of strong hints for which way they would each lean. As a judge, abortion came up in one case before Kavanaugh on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C. circuit in Garza v. Hargan, which involved a 17 year old pregnant immigrant who sought an abortion while in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. The Trump administration sought to block the girl from receiving an abortion — a move which Kavanaugh supported in his dissent, to the alarm of pro-choice activists.
Prior to his appointment to his current lifetime job, Kavanaugh also hinted at his opposition to abortion rights during a 2017 speech at the American Enterprise Institute praising the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Rehnquist, Kavanaugh noted with approval, had dissented in the historic Roe ruling on the grounds that “unenumerated” constitutional rights should only be credited by the court if they are “rooted in the nation’s history and tradition.”
It wasn’t surprising, then, when Kavanaugh appeared on a list of potential Supreme Court nominees approved by the Federalist Society, a deeply anti-choice organization that helped shape Trump’s approach to the judiciary.
During his nomination hearings, Kavanaugh said repeatedly that he believed that the Roe “is important precedent of the Supreme Court that has been reaffirmed many times,” and reiterated previous comments that the case is “settled as a precedent of the Supreme Court, entitled the respect under principles of stare decisis.”
In follow-up questions for his confirmation hearings, Kavanaugh said he hadn’t suggested to Trump or anyone in the administration how he would rule on Roe and wrote that he “offered no hints or forecasts” of his thinking on any potential decisions.
Of course, in the halls of the Trump White House, where senior officials watched him repeat his rehearsed lines on live TV, they all knew what he meant by that.