President wavered late on nominee decision

Until the last day, Trump was still asking friends who they thought he should pick to succeed Anthony Kennedy.


After the two couples — President Donald Trump and his wife and federal judge Brett Kavanaugh and his wife — gathered in the residence of the White House for over an hour Sunday night, Trump made Kavanaugh a historic offer: to be his choice to succeed Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. 

Yet just hours later on Monday morning, Trump seemed to waver — making a flurry of calls to friends and allies and asking them what they thought of Kavanaugh and whom he should nominate. 

Some White House advisers fretted Trump might reverse himself even after informing Vice President Mike Pence and White House Counsel Donald McGahn that he had reached a final decision. Others shrugged off his apparent waffling as the showman president attempting to inject a last bit of suspense into his second Supreme Court nomination. 

The 24-hour whirlwind leading up to Monday night's prime time announcement, and the 12-day stretch that preceded it, was classic Trump — a freewheeling process involving an eclectic cast of advisers and punctuated by bouts of indecision and drama. 

"All a little misdirection," said a White House official, speaking anonymously to share a candid look at the search. "How much did he enjoy the media tripping all over themselves? I'm sure he loved it." 

Ultimately, in Kavanaugh, Trump chose not just an unabashed conservative candidate likely to please his base but one who appealed to him for other reasons, as well: personal chemistry, Ivy League credentials and a compelling personal story. 

Raj Shah, a White House spokesman, likened the nomination strategy to a marketing campaign, saying it had the benefit of pitching a premium product. "We have a well-qualified, articulate nominee whose record will sell itself," Shah said. 

This portrait of Trump's Supreme Court nomination decision is the result of interviews with more than two dozen White House aides, members of Congress, Republican operatives, outside advisers, presidential friends and confidants, many of whom requested anonymity to share details of private conversations. 

Trump "landed where he started" said a senior White House official, explaining that the president settled on the federal judge who had been his favored candidate since learning of Kennedy's retirement. Kavanaugh was also the top choice of McGahn, who sat in on nearly every interview and meeting. 

Kavanaugh's years in the White House of George W. Bush, who then nominated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, were a knock against the judge in the eyes of Trump, who frequently rails against the Bush dynasty. But those concerns began to dissipate during their initial in-person interview on July 2, when the 72-year-old president and the 53-year-old judge established a rapport. 

Kavanaugh advocates also worked to convince Trump that merely by offering him a lifetime appointment to the nation's top court, the justice would inherently become a "Trump guy" rather than a "Bush guy." 

"Bush put him on the D.C. Circuit; Trump put him on the Supreme Court," a senior White House adviser said. "That's not a lateral move." 

Both McGahn and Kavanaugh also sought to portray the judge's lengthy record — including more than 300 opinions, roughly a dozen of which were affirmed by the Supreme Court — as a benefit rather than a potential stumbling block. While it might complicate his confirmation process, they told Trump, Kavanaugh would be the safest and most appealing candidate for the president's conservative base. 

After that first sit-down, Kavanaugh emerged as the clear front-runner. One person familiar with the interview said Kavanaugh, who worked closely with Bush as his staff secretary, "knew exactly how to talk to Trump" because he understands how presidents operate. "Brett has been planning for this his whole life," the person said. 

Trump, a proud graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, was also impressed with Kavanaugh's dual undergraduate and law degrees from Yale. The president has long viewed an Ivy League pedigree as a mark of intelligence and is, in the words of a senior White House official, an unabashed "credentialist." 

In the end, one of Kavanaugh's biggest hurdles was that he was the "conventional wisdom" pick, while Trump relishes defying the experts. 

For his part, Trump mostly hewed to the process laid out by activists, basing his search off a list of roughly two dozen judges and legal figures who were preapproved by conservative groups, said Leonard Leo, an executive at the Federalist Society. 

"What people need to remember, is the president came up with the idea of doing the list and wanted to make the Supreme Court a very big issue in the presidential campaign," Leo said. "He took ownership of the list, and it helped propel him to victory and hold the Senate, so it's no surprise he wants to be in the driver's seat on judicial selection and keep up what's worked." 

On the same day as the Kavanaugh interview, Trump also met in person with three of the four other finalists — Amy Coney Barrett, Raymond Kethledge and Amul Thapar. (The only finalist he did not meet with in person was Thomas Hardiman, who was the runner-up for the vacancy filled last year by Justice Neil Gorsuch, though the two men spoke twice by phone). 

Trump told advisers that he liked all of them but that none immediately stood out. Thapar was a favorite of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., but that didn't excite Trump. Kethledge was more engaging than expected, but his lighter judicial record made him a long shot, especially after some hard-right conservatives began to complain to the White House about what they viewed as his soft rulings on immigration. 

Trump's older sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, spoke favorably to the president about Hardiman, with whom she served on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But the judge was hurt by the fact that Trump felt he already knew him from their previous meeting. 

Barrett, meanwhile, was a favorite of the Christian right, especially after she took on Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., during her confirmation fight last year, when Feinstein raised questions about Barrett's Catholic faith. 

When Barrett sat down with Trump, she was friendly but reserved and did not particularly connect with the president. Nonetheless, he later told associates he was impressed by her and her large family, including one child with special needs and two adopted from Haiti, and that he hoped to save her as a future pick for the high court once she has more experience on the federal bench. 

Last week, some on the right began grumbling about Kavanaugh. Republican-aligned groups who worried that his opinions on health care and abortion were insufficiently conservative fumed to friends in the West Wing. 

Sensing an opening, Hardiman proponents redoubled their efforts. Former Republican senator Rick Santorum, a Hardiman ally, pitched his blue-collar biography to friends at the White House. 

Officials there promised to give him a serious look and began talking about Hardiman as a top option should the president suddenly sour on Kavanaugh. 

Kavanaugh's allies mobilized, too. Former clerks fended off criticism that his record on abortion was squishy and that his rulings were too deferential to government agencies. 

"We were surprised by the criticism from the right and thought it was important to set the record straight," said former clerk Roman Martinez, a Washington lawyer who helped organize dozens of Kavanaugh's former clerks from a family vacation in Ireland. 

Trump's weekend was spent at one of his favorite retreats: Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. On Friday, the president spoke by phone with McConnell, who told him Hardiman or Kethledge would perhaps be the easiest to confirm, based on McConnell's private conversations with Republican senators about the shortlist. 

Trump asked aides afterward whether McConnell's worries about Kavanaugh were correct. 

McGahn and others told Trump that Kavanaugh did have a paper trail from his time investigating President Bill Clinton in the 1990s and from the Bush White House that would be parsed by Democrats. But they sought to stress the upside of his long record of conservatism. 

Think about the pick as a long-term decision, McGahn counseled Trump, rather than something that will be defined by the nomination hearings. 

As late as lunchtime on Sunday at Bedminster, Trump was asking friends — including Fox News host Sean Hannity and Newsmax chief executive Christopher Ruddy — for their input. 

Ruddy, a Kavanaugh booster, told to the president that the judge was admired by Ed Meese, who served as Ronald Reagan's attorney general, as a genuine conservative. It was a seal of approval the president appreciated, according to people briefed on the discussion. 

On Monday evening, shortly before entering the East Room, Trump made his decision official, signing the commission to nominate Kavanaugh at the Lincoln Desk in the residence. 

Kavanaugh effusively praised the president in summing up the process when he took the lectern: "No president has ever consulted more widely, or talked with more people from more backgrounds, to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination." 

Trump, looking on from behind his shoulder, half-nodded and did not smile.


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