Trump narrows list for Supreme Court pick with focus on Kavanaugh and Kethledge

Washington Post

President Donald Trump's deliberations over a Supreme Court nominee now center on three candidates culled from his shortlist: federal judges Brett Kavanaugh, Raymond Kethledge and Amy Coney Barrett, according to White House officials and Trump advisers involved in the discussions.

But Trump's final decision on a replacement for retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy remained fluid as he traveled Thursday to a political rally in Montana before heading to his golf course in New Jersey for the weekend, with the president pinballing between associates as he seeks feedback and suggestions.

While Trump has placed Kavanaugh, a polished former Kennedy clerk and Yale Law School graduate, near the top of his list, he has also been asking several friends and aides about whether Kavanaugh's past work in George W. Bush's White House would be an issue for his core supporters, thousands of whom filled the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls, Montana, Thursday evening.

And Trump is hearing out arguments for Kethledge, another former Kennedy clerk, and for Coney Barrett, a Notre Dame law professor who is being championed by some social conservatives, according to the advisers, who requested anonymity since they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Kavanaugh and Kethledge have the "inside track," according to a person close to the president, because many White House officials believe Coney Barrett, 46, could instead be a pick for the high court in the coming years, after she gains more experience on the federal bench.

A second person close to the president said Thursday that Kavanaugh and Kethledge are the shortlist.

Vice President Mike Pence met privately with Kavanaugh on Wednesday at the vice president's residence and that session went well, underscoring the judge's strong prospects, according to two Republicans briefed on the meeting.

"I think I have it down to four people and I think of the four people, I have it down to three or two. I think they're all outstanding," Trump told reporters Thursday en route to Montana, declining to name the finalists. "I don't want say the four. But I have it down to four. I'll have a decision made in my mind by Sunday. We'll announce it on Monday."

Others who emerged on Trump's shortlists just days ago - federal judges Thomas Hardiman, Amul Thapar and Joan Larsen as well as Sen. Mike, R-Utah, - remain in contention, but the president's queries have mostly been about the leading contenders, whether it's been during phone calls, in Oval Office meetings or on Air Force One.

One Trump adviser said the president is unlikely to expand his list in the coming days, but could follow up by phone with some of the candidates, all of whom have been asked to fill out disclosure forms dealing with their finances and conduct.

Trump told reporters he was not planning to bring candidates in for interviews again when he heads to his New Jersey golf club this weekend. "I doubt it," he said.

Trump's process has echoes of both his search for a Supreme Court justice last year - he eventually nominated Neil Gorsuch - and his consideration of a running mate during the 2016 presidential campaign. Even as White House counsel Donald McGahn fiercely guards information about the candidate interviews and Trump's leanings, the president is engaging with the freewheeling loop of boosters, lawmakers and confidants that he has long counted on for political gut checks.

"Do you know him?" Trump has asked about Kethledge, advisers said. Or, on Kavanaugh's link to the Bush network with whom Trump has clashed for years, the president has flatly asked, "What do you think?"

Others close to Trump said a variety of factors were on the president's radar beyond the candidates' interpretation of the law, such as their educational profiles, personal backgrounds and rapport with him in interviews - leaving most Trump allies wary of making predictions.

"He listens to everybody, big or small, influential or not, and absorbs it all. He then adds that to how he feels and comes to a conclusion," Trump friend and Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy said.

The resignation Thursday of Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, following months of ethics scandals, added some uncertainty to Trump's timeline for a Supreme Court decision as White House officials handled Pruitt's exit as some Trump allies wondered if the president might announce his choice before Monday to bump Pruitt from the headlines.

Trump, however, maintained Thursday that Monday remains his chosen date for an announcement. "We're going to do it at 9 p.m. in the White House," he told reporters.

Debates over Kavanugh's work with Bush and rulings he has made on health care and abortion continued to churn Thursday as critics urged the president to shy away from a judge with an establishment Republican pedigree.

Kavanaugh, 53, helped investigate President Bill Clinton as part of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's team and then served as an aide to Bush before joining the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2006.

"He looks, walks, and quacks like John G. Roberts Jr.," the chief justice of the United States who has angered conservatives for his rulings on President Barack Obama's signature health-care law, former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli said. "The Bush lives loudly in Kavanaugh."

Cuccinelli's remark is a wry reference to another contender who social conservatives unsure about Kavanaugh have rallied behind this week: Coney Barrett. "The dogma lives loudly within you," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told her last year during her confirmation hearing in an exchange about the judge's Catholic faith - a comment that was roundly criticized by religious leaders.

"If Democrats tried to go anti-Catholic with her, that'd backfire and we know it," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said.

But Trump is not rushing toward Coney Barrett with the same fervor, according to the two people close to the president. They described his view of her as "positive" since he appointed her, but noted that he sees Kavanaugh and Kethledge as similar to Gorsuch, another former Kennedy clerk, whose tenure has been celebrated by his supporters and whose judicial records are largely acceptable to most wings of the Republican Party.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a Trump ally, signed a statement Thursday with other conservative leaders pushing for Lee, following days of phone calls with Trump and others over his concerns about Kavanaugh, complicating the outlook in the Senate, where Republicans have a narrow, 51-seat majority.

Kethledge's sudden ascent in the process is widely seen in the West Wing as a consequence of what conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh has called the "whisper campaign" against Kavanaugh, with the president newly intrigued by the University of Michigan Law School graduate.

Democrats, meanwhile, prepared for the political war over the high court that could dominate the summer, with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., making his own suggestion for Trump.

Schumer privately urged the president in a phone call earlier this week to nominate federal Judge Merrick Garland, Obama's third nominee to the Supreme Court who was summarily shunned by Senate Republicans in 2016.

Trump called Schumer on Tuesday afternoon for a Supreme Court-centered conversation that lasted less than five minutes, according to a person familiar with the call. Schumer, the person said, pressed the president to name Garland to succeed Kennedy, arguing doing so would help unite the country.

Schumer also warned the president that nominating a jurist who would be hostile to Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established a woman's right to an abortion, and to Obama's health-care law, would be "cataclysmic" and damage Trump's legacy, the person added, requesting anonymity since they were not authorized to speak publicly.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump pledged to nominate judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade.

Schumer also tweeted barbs about Kethledge Thursday. "Judge Kethledge has a history of opposing women's reproductive freedom," he wrote.

The rush of scrutiny gave Kethledge's backers hope that his chances were perhaps rising - and a preview of the political firestorm he would face on Capitol Hill, should he be nominated.

The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey in Washington contributed to this report.

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