Trump weighs top picks for Supreme Court amid last-minute maneuvering
WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump said he was "close" to choosing a Supreme Court nominee Sunday after a weekend at his New Jersey golf club evaluating four leading candidates and mulling the likely response of key senators and his core supporters to each prospect, according to White House officials and Trump advisers involved in the discussions.
Over rounds of golf with friends, meals with family, and a flurry of phone calls and meetings with aides, Trump remained coy about his final decision, which is expected to be announced Monday evening from among the four federal judges atop his shortlist: Brett Kavanaugh, Thomas Hardiman, Raymond Kethledge and Amy Coney Barrett.
"I'm very close to making a decision," Trump told reporters Sunday afternoon. "Have not made it official yet. Have not made it final."
He added: "It's still - let's say it's the four people. But they're excellent. Every one. You can't go wrong."
Hardiman, a runner-up when Trump chose Neil Gorsuch as his high court nominee last year, received a wave of new attention in the weekend discussions, according to two people briefed on the matter but not authorized to speak publicly about it.
But White House officials cautioned Sunday that Trump's informal conversations with golf partners and friends did not necessarily hint at whom he would ultimately select, a decision that could tilt the bench to the right for decades.
At various times, Kavanaugh, Barrett and Kethledge have been seen as the leading candidates. Trump likes the suspense: With a showman's sense of timing, he boasted last year that he kept Gorsuch's selection closely held until the prime-time announcement.
But some involved in the process said the situation is more fluid this time than it was with Gorsuch.
This weekend, Trump recounted how close he came last year to selecting Hardiman, who was recommended by the president's sister and sometimes-confidante, retired federal judge Maryanne Trump Barry. She served with the Pennsylvania-based Hardiman on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.
And Hardiman's working-class roots - he drove a taxi during his days as a law student at Georgetown University - have been cited as a plus inside the White House, along with his conservative rulings. His boosters, sensing this weekend that Hardiman could be ascending on the president's list, have been busy making phone calls to friends in Trump's inner circle.
"He's got a story that's compelling beyond the taxicab," former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a friend of Hardiman's, said in an interview. "I'm talking to people about his service work with his church in West Virginia and about how he has helped people seeking asylum from communist countries. He speaks Spanish. His wife comes from a Democratic family, and he knows how to engage with all kind of people, not just Republicans."
Kavanaugh, who lives in the Maryland suburbs, serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; Michigan's Kethledge is on the 6th Circuit; and Indiana's Barrett is on the 7th Circuit.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who will lead the confirmation fight on Capitol Hill, spoke with Trump by phone Friday, according to two Republican officials briefed on the exchange.
The officials underscored that McConnell did not push any choice on the president. But, they said, McConnell did note that Hardiman and Kethledge could fare well in the Senate because their reputations and records were not as politically charged as others on the president's shortlist of nominees.
A McConnell spokesman declined to comment. The New York Times first reported McConnell's call with Trump.
Kavanaugh, like Kethledge, is a former clerk to retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. His addition last fall to the list of potential Supreme Court nominees was seen by many as a way to make Kennedy more comfortable about retiring. Some see him still as the leading candidate.
But Kavanaugh's tenure in George W. Bush's White House as staff secretary - a senior position that controls documents moving across the president's desk - has emerged as a last-minute snag.
Trump has privately and repeatedly questioned whether Kavanaugh's work for the Bush family - a family whose members have deeply criticized the president and are pillars of the Republican establishment - could tarnish his brand or pose a problem for his core supporters.
Trump, who closely monitors media coverage, has also tracked criticism of Kavanaugh from some social conservatives who see his rulings on health care and abortion as lacking ideological zeal.
One person who is close to Trump said the "Bush factor" could be the chief reason if Kavanaugh is passed over.
If Barrett is not selected this time, White House officials said she would remain on the list for a future vacancy.
Kennedy's retirement has given conservatives their first hope in decades for a court that would strike down Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision that legalized abortion nationally. But at the moment, it is liberals who are focused on making this a galvanizing issue.
In interviews on Sunday's talk shows, supporters of a conservative court pick played down the possibility that the president's nominee would sink Roe.
Leonard Leo, a Federalist Society leader who has helped vet the nominees on Trump's public shortlist, used an interview on ABC News' "This Week" to accuse opponents of any nominee of diversion.
"We only have a single individual on the court who has expressly said he would overturn Roe," Leo said, referring to Justice Clarence Thomas, the only one on the current bench to have voted against the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision reaffirming Roe. "So I think it's a bit of a scare tactic and rank speculation more than anything else."
During the 2016 campaign, and in subsequent interviews, Trump repeatedly assured conservative voters that his nominees would scrap the 45-year-old Roe decision.
In 2016, he told Fox News' Chris Wallace that Roe would be overturned if he got to appoint "two or three" justices, "because I am putting pro-life justices on the court." Kennedy had effectively preserved Roe by joining the controlling opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
"He is certainly the first major-party nominee who went on to be president to put a litmus test on Supreme Court justices, and that was to actually overturn Roe v. Wade," Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said of Trump on Fox News. "We believe him."
While public polling on abortion finds support for a number of potential abortion restrictions, the popularity of Roe itself remains high.
"The vast majority of American people, shown by poll after poll, want Roe v. Wade to be preserved," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said on ABC News' "This Week." "They want protections [in securing health insurance] for millions of Americans against preexisting conditions to be sustained. They want these voting rights and gay rights and other rights to be not only preserved, but also enhanced."
Democrats hope to put pressure on Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to protect Roe. If neither senator breaks, Democrats still believe that they can drive down public support for the nominee by focusing on threats to abortion rights, gay rights, the Affordable Care Act and environmental regulations - even in Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia, red states whose Democratic senators backed Trump's first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.
The conservative groups doing the most public messaging about the court fight have so far avoided discussing particular issues. In an ad running in red states represented by Democrats, the Judicial Crisis Network's messaging closely resembles Leo's; it suggests generically that Democrats should let Trump confirm "another great justice" who would respect the Constitution.
On "Fox News Sunday," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also stayed away from any of the issues that might come before the court, emphasizing that Democratic senators in states won by Trump would be under considerable pressure to approve any nominee.
"Red-state Democrats are going to have a very hard decision, and I hope every Republican will rally behind these picks, because they are all outstanding," Graham said.
Robert Costa is a national political reporter for The Washington Post. Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. The Washington Post's David Weigel, Felicia Sonmez and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.