As Trump readies Supreme Court pick, Democrats prepare a fight even though a loss is likely

Democratic hopes of defeating the Supreme Court nominee whom President Trump plans to announce on Monday depend on repeating the strategy used last year in the fight against Republican healthcare bills.

It’s not likely to work, but party strategists see benefits in a battle.

In the healthcare fight, Democrats succeeded in turning public opinion against the GOP measures enough to hold all their own senators and gain the votes of three Republicans. But they were unable to duplicate that win a few months later when the GOP tax bill came to the Senate floor. So far, the Supreme Court fight more closely resembles the debate over taxes.

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DEFINING THE BATTLEGROUND

Trump plans a prime-time unveiling of the nominee on Monday. Three federal appeals court judges topped his list as of Friday — Judges Brett Kavanaugh of the D.C. Circuit, Amy Coney Barrett of the Chicago-based 7th Circuit and Raymond Kethledge of the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit.

Kavanaugh, a longtime favorite of Washington-based conservative activists, is known for a skeptical view of the power of federal regulatory agencies. Barrett has strong backing from social conservatives whose top priority is opposition to abortion. Her past writing has indicated a willingness to overturn precedents, David Savage wrote. Kethledge has a shorter paper trail than either of the others, which might make confirmation easier, but which makes some conservative activists uneasy.

Whomever Trump picks, Savage wrote, the conservative victories of this past term provide a good guide for what the court likely will look like over the next several years, with Chief Justice John Roberts as the swing vote.

For both sides, the top priority as the debate begins is to shape how the public perceives what the argument is about.

The best informed voters already know what the Supreme Court does and why its membership matters. Well-informed voters, however, nearly always have strong partisan views these days. They know which side they’re on and aren’t likely to let the other party’s arguments sway them.

The parties want to keep those well-informed partisans mobilized. But both sides know the outcome depends on whether the opposition can engage and persuade low-information voters — those who seldom take much interest in Supreme Court justices or have much sense of what they do.

That’s why Republicans already have started to stress the high quality of Trump’s list of potential nominees, their academic success and legal credentials.

Trump and his aides moved quickly to pick a nominee, as Noah Bierman wrote. They want to speed the debate along and center it around the nominee’s personal qualifications.

Defining the argument is also why Democrats, led by Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, talk so much about abortion rights and healthcare.

A Trump-dominated court could “undermine key healthcare protections,” Schumer warned the day Justice Anthony M. Kennedy announced his retirement. Trump’s “nominee to the court almost certainly will vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade and eviscerate affordable access to healthcare for millions of Americans,” he repeated in an op-ed this week.

Other Democrats have read from the same script.

“Healthcare for millions of Americans could depend on who fills the current vacancy,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote this week. “The president has a clear litmus test for his nominees, and that means the deciding vote against Roe vs. Wade.”

The problem for Democrats is that the connection between the court and those issues, which seems so clear to activists on both sides, may seem obscure to many voters. The logic requires multiple steps: If a state tries to ban abortion or if Trump again challenged Obamacare in court and if the case got to the Supreme Court and if the court divided 5-4, then this latest nominee would provide the key vote.

For voters who find that other issues in their lives take priority over such worries, all that may seem pretty attenuated. Senior Democrats say they failed in their efforts to stop the tax bill because they couldn’t get enough voters to feel a personal stake in the outcome. That may prove true with the court, as well.

That, in turn, explains why the senators whose votes are up for grabs, notably Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), have drawn the line where they have.

“I would not support a nominee who demonstrated hostility to Roe vs. Wade,” Collins said in a television interview earlier this week, referring to the 1973 decision that guaranteed abortion rights nationwide.

“Demonstrated” is the key word in that sentence. Collins supports abortion rights, but she’ll likely vote for a nominee who does not so long as the potential justice’s views remain ambiguous. The same may also be true of Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Collins’ test would rule out potential nominees like Judge William Pryor of Alabama, who once referred to Roe vs. Wade as the “worst abomination in the history of constitutional law.” Pryor, a favorite of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, is on Trump’s list of 25, but likely won’t get the nod.

The same goes for Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who wants the job. He has likened Roe to the Dred Scott case, the widely reviled pre-Civil War decision by the high court that denied citizenship to blacks. Trump spoke with him but isn’t likely to pick him.

The White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky want a confirmation vote in September. But even if the nominee prevails, the argument won’t entirely end: Collins’ current term in the Senate, her fourth, runs up in 2020. If she runs for a fifth in a state that has trended Democratic in recent elections, Democrats hope to make her vote on the court an issue.

CONTRACTING OUT A SMOOTH PROCESS

Turbulence defines Trump’s White House.

Nominating Supreme Court justices provides the crucial exception. Last year’s successful confirmation of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch moved like the finely tuned machine Trump likes to brag about but seldom achieves. So far, the current process also has moved rapidly and smoothly.

That’s largely because Trump has outsourced the work to private groups, Bierman wrote.

“This is a zone where Trump is willing to say, ‘I got a guy here who knows what he’s doing,’ ”said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and sometime Trump advisor.

Inside the government, White House counsel Donald McGahn runs the process. But much of the work of putting together and vetting Trump’s list of 25 potential nominees came from Leonard Leo, the head of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group. He’s the man to see if you aspire to the Supreme Court, David Savage wrote.

A BLOW TO AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

The administration this week rescinded Obama-era policies encouraging affirmative action in higher education. As Jaweed Kaleem reported, the Obama policies didn’t have the force of law, and neither does Trump’s reversal. So the shift won’t force any colleges or universities to change their policies. But it does send a powerful signal about where the administration hopes the law will move, perhaps with that fifth Supreme Court justice.

NOT SO SMOOTH A RIDE AT EPA

Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general whom Trump chose as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, stepped down Thursday after an extraordinary run of scandal.

As Evan Halper wrote, Pruitt faced numerous internal investigations into matters including a deal for discount housing that he cut with the wife of a top energy lobbyist, big raises he gave friends against the instructions of the White House and first-class flights he billed to taxpayers. Pruitt tried repeatedly to get a job for his wife, using his office to boost her chances. He spent $43,000 to have a secure phone booth installed in his office.

Trump named Pruitt’s deputy, Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for coal companies, as acting administrator.

Wheeler likely will continue Pruitt’s policies of aggressively rolling back Obama-era regulatory efforts. As for Pruitt, he’s been widely expected to run for governor or Senate from his home state. Whether his controversial stint in Washington has harmed that prospect remains to be seen.

FAMILIES STILL SEPARATED

More than two weeks have gone by since Trump, trying to quell a huge controversy, signed an order saying his administration would end its policy of taking children away from parents caught crossing the border illegally.

So far, almost no families have been reunited.

With a court deadline coming Tuesday to reunite children younger than 5 with their families, Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, told reporters that the number of children separated from their parents could be almost 3,000 — hundreds more than previously revealed. About 100 are younger than 5, he said.

As Jazmine Ulloa reported, the government has no consistent records of which parents go with which children, and HHS, which has custody of the children, has spent hundreds of hours in the past week going through paper trying to sort out the vast confusion.

Azar said his department would comply with the court order, although he criticized the deadline as “extreme.” Rather than separate families, the administration now plans to hold them together in indefinite immigration detention while their claims for legal asylum go through the courts.

Meantime, the administration lost a round in court this week in its effort to overturn California’s immigrant sanctuary laws. A federal judge in Sacramento said California was within its rights not to aid federal immigration efforts, John Myers reported.

“Refusing to help is not the same as impeding,” District Judge John A. Mendez wrote.

EUROPE BOUND — PUTIN AWAITS

Right after announcing his pick for the court, Trump plans to head for Europe to attend a NATO summit, visit Britain, then meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16 in Helsinki.

As he prepares for the meetings, Trump has kept up his pace of bashing U.S. allies and avoiding comment on Russian interference in elections, as Laura King wrote.

Russia’s efforts to intervene in elections goes well beyond the U.S. As Chris Megerian wrote, Europeans also have been victims and fear further meddling. European leaders worry that Trump’s unwillingness to publicly condemn Russian actions will, in effect, give Putin a green light.

Trump continues not to accept the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russians intervened in the U.S. campaign and did so deliberately to help him. But this week, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee backed up the intelligence agencies, issuing a report saying that their assessment was well-grounded.

ASIA WAITS TOO

Since Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore last month, there’s been no indication that the North Koreans have actually started to cut back their nuclear program. In fact, some evidence points to an expansion.

U.S. intelligence officials believe that Kim might give up part of the country’s nuclear program in exchange for U.S. concessions, but that he plans to conceal other parts of the nuclear arsenal to avoid U.S. detection, Tracy Wilkinson and David Cloud reported.

“There is no sign that Kim has changed his view that possessing a nuclear capability is his best insurance,” one of the officials said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Pyongyang on Friday for talks with the North Koreans.

His trip comes amid worries by allied governments that under Trump, America’s influence in the western Pacific may be on the decline, Wilkinson and Barbara Demick reported.

BIGGER MILITARY BUDGET BRINGS POLITICAL BENEFITS

For several years, the Pentagon said it didn’t need more M1 Abrams tanks. But with the Trump administration raining money on the military, that’s changed.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have now gone to a once-struggling tank factory that builds the 80-ton machines, Cloud reported. Perhaps it’s only coincidence that the factory sits in Ohio, a state key to Trump’s election and his hopes for a repeat.

CALIFORNIA CHECK-IN

My colleagues on the California politics team will have a check in on how the Kennedy retirement has affected the discussion about abortion rights in California this weekend. You can find that on Essential Politics.

LOGISTICS

The other two newsletters on Monday and Wednesday are taking a hiatus this summer. I’ll be back Friday with your weekly roundup. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

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David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter

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