By the Associated Press
The list of contenders to fill a Supreme Court vacancy by retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy is narrowing, with President Donald Trump telling reporters that he’s focused on two or three people ahead of his Monday announcement.
“I think I have it down to four people. And I think of the four people I have it down to three or two,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One Thursday, as he traveled to a campaign rally in Montana.
Trump was at his private golf club in New Jersey Friday and planned to spend the weekend there, consulting with advisers as he picks his court nominee amid intense jockeying from various factions seeking to influence the choice. The president planned to have dinner Friday night with Vice President Mike Pence, who has also been meeting with candidates as part of the vetting process.
Trump’s current top contenders are federal appeals court judges Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Raymond Kethledge, said a person familiar with Trump’s thinking who was not authorized to speak publicly. Still, the process remains fluid, with the president seeking input from advisers and lawmakers, and others may remain in the running, including federal appeals judge Thomas Hardiman.
Pence met in person with Kethledge and Barrett while he was vacationing in Indiana earlier this week and met with Kavanaugh at the Naval Observatory on July 4, said a person familiar with the process who was not authorized to speak publicly. Pence has also spoken to Republican senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul about the process.
With customary fanfare, Trump plans to announce his selection Monday night. The administration is preparing roll-out plans for the leading contenders, and hopes to have a decision on the top one or two names in the next couple of days, so staff can conduct a deep-dive background ahead of the possible prime-time event, according to a senior administration official granted anonymity to discuss the plans.
But as the president builds suspense for his second court pick in two years — a nominee who could tip the balance toward conservatives and revisit landmark rulings on abortion access, gay marriage and other issues — momentum is also growing among GOP supporters and detractors of the top contenders.
Conservatives and some libertarian-leaning Republicans, including Paul of Kentucky, have raised concerns about Kavanaugh, warning he could disappoint Republicans if his past decisions are a guide.
Paul and another Republican, Cruz of Texas, are supporting fellow Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who is not said to be under serious consideration by the White House but is the only lawmaker Trump has considered for the position.
To counter that, Kavanaugh’s allies have begun pushing back, reaching out to influential Republicans to ward off potential criticisms, according to one conservative who was the recipient of such outreach and spoke on condition of anonymity Thursday to discuss the situation.
The senior administration official, though, said the administration is feeling less heat than earlier in this week over the choices, particularly Kavanaugh, and believes the jockeying in general has calmed somewhat.
With the Senate narrowly divided, 51-49, in favor of Republicans, Trump’s announcement will launch a contentious confirmation process as Republicans seek to shift the court to the right and Democrats strive to block the effort. Any GOP defections could begin to doom a nominee.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told the president this week that nominating someone hostile to abortion access, or the 2010 health care law, would tarnish his legacy.
Schumer told Trump that such a choice would be “cataclysmic” and create more division than the country has seen in years, according to a person familiar with the conversation who said Trump called Schumer on Tuesday.
McConnell, the Senate majority leader, said Thursday at an event in Louisville he believes “the president will make a very high-quality appointment.”
McConnell acknowledged that his fellow Kentuckian, Judge Amul Thapar, is a finalist, but noted, “The competition at this level is pretty intense.”
Trump conducted interviews Monday and Tuesday. He is choosing his nominee from a list of 25 candidates vetted by conservative groups.
Lee, R-Utah, is not viewed as a top prospect, but has consistent support among conservative and libertarian activists, including some Republicans who worry about a nominee not upholding their principles and who say the Utah senator could bring more certainty.
Paul has told colleagues he may not vote for Kavanaugh if the judge is nominated, citing Kavanaugh’s role during President George W. Bush’s administration on cases involving executive privilege and the disclosure of documents to Congress, said a person familiar with Paul’s conversations who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Some conservatives have pointed to Kethledge as a potential justice in the mold of Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee last year. Both Kethledge and Gorsuch once served Kennedy as law clerks, as did Kavanaugh. Kethledge, a Michigan Law graduate, would add academic diversity to a court steeped in the Ivy League.
Since Trump said his short list includes at least two women, speculation has focused on Barrett, a former law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia and a longtime Notre Dame Law School professor who serves on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Conservative groups rallied around Barrett after her confirmation hearing last year featured questioning from Democrats over how her Roman Catholic faith would affect her decisions.
Trump’s choice to replace Kennedy — a swing vote on the nine-member court — has the potential to remake the court for a generation as part of precedent-shattering decisions. Recognizing the stakes, many Democrats have lined up in opposition to any Trump pick.