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Josh Hawley’s attempt to smear Ketanji Brown Jackson backfires

The Missouri Republican meant to make Judge Jackson look awful. He denigrated himself in the process.


As Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings approached, Senate Republicans boasted about how responsible they’d be. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, for example, the process “will be thoroughly respectable, quite different from the way the Democrats treated Clarence Thomas, quite different from the way the Democrats treated Brett Kavanaugh.”

It came on the heels of related rhetoric from Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I think you’re not going to find Republicans getting in the gutter like the Democrats did with Kavanaugh,” the Iowa senator claimed.

In reality, it’s rather easy to defend the ways in which Democratic senators handled the credible allegations surrounding Thomas and Kavanaugh. But putting that aside, the assurances about the GOP staying away from “the gutter” and approaching Jackson’s nomination in a “respectable” way look ridiculous in the wake of Sen. Josh Hawley’s attempted smear.

The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus highlighted the Missouri Republican’s attack in her latest column:

How desperate can you get? This desperate: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is pushing the argument that Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson is dangerously soft on sex offenders, child pornographers in particular. “I’ve noticed an alarming pattern when it comes to Judge Jackson’s treatment of sex offenders, especially those preying on children,” Hawley tweeted. “I’m concerned that this [is] a record that endangers our children.”

The GOP senator’s line of attack did not go unnoticed, but fact-checkers quickly dismantled Hawley’s nonsense. The Associated Press said the senator’s claims “don’t stand up to scrutiny.” Fact-check reports from the Washington Post and CNN came to the same conclusion.

Others were even more direct in their denunciations. Vox’s Ian Millhiser described Hawley’s attempted smear “genuinely nauseating.” In National Review, a leading conservative publication, Andrew McCarthy concluded that Hawley’s allegation “appears meritless to the point of demagoguery.”

A Wall Street Journal report added that the senator's tweets on the subject :were criticized by people across the ideological spectrum who said Mr. Hawley’s commentary lacked context, misconstrued Judge Jackson’s conduct and writings, and created a false dichotomy between protecting children and adhering to outdated sentencing guidelines that were unduly harsh."

In other words, the Republican went on the offensive, only to have the attack backfire.

I am, of course, mindful of the larger circumstances. Hawley is an ambitious far-right politician, eager to curry favor with some of the most radical elements of his party. In fact, as my MSNBC colleague Ja’han Jones explained very well last week, it’s probably not a coincidence that the Missouri senator’s ugly allegations “hew closely to claims we’ve heard from QAnon conspiracy theorists.”

What’s more, Hawley’s efforts appear to have had at least some of the intended effect: Media Matters found the Republican’s baseless accusations quickly ricocheted “in right-wing media and extremist circles.”

And for the senator, it’s entirely possible that little else matters. But the fact remains that Senate GOP leaders have made no effort to follow Hawley’s lead; observers from the left, right, and center have been quick to shred his baseless smear; and by mainstream standards, Hawley’s attack backfired.

The Missouri Republican meant to make Jackson look awful. He denigrated himself in the process.

* This post has been updated with additional links.