Trump Weighs Supreme Court Candidates as Decision Nears


WASHINGTON—President

Donald Trump

deliberated Sunday about his Supreme Court nominee, appearing to favor different finalists before a planned Monday night announcement that he views as crucial to his legacy.

Mr. Trump was undecided over the weekend and was making calls Sunday to outside advisers and asking questions about a quartet of finalists: federal judges Brett Kavanaugh, Raymond Kethledge, Thomas Hardiman and Amy Coney Barrett, people familiar with the search process said. If confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Trump’s pick could tip the court’s yearslong balance firmly toward conservatives on issues including executive power, abortion and gun rights.

As the day wore on, Mr. Trump zeroed in on different aspects each finalist brought to the equation, and his own advisers weren’t certain where he would land, noting a final decision could come just hours before Monday’s televised announcement, set for 9 p.m. EDT. “It’s a jump ball,” said one person familiar with the search.

“We are close to making a decision,” Mr. Trump told reporters Sunday afternoon as he prepared to return to Washington from a weekend at his New Jersey golf club. “Let’s just say it’s the four people. Every one you can’t go wrong. I’ll be deciding tonight or tomorrow sometime by 12 o’clock, and we’re all going to be meeting at 9 o’clock,” he said.

The president’s decision process was expected to include a round of golf Sunday with friends including conservative commentator

Sean Hannity.

Mr. Hannity didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Trump would say, ‘I don’t want to be remembered in 20 or 30 years as having made big mistakes here. I want to do this right and I want to do this for history,’ ” said

Steve Bannon,

former White House chief strategist.

Judge Kavanaugh had been a front-runner as late as Saturday, but the fact that Mr. Trump hadn’t settled on him suggested his front-runner status may have slipped by Sunday, several people familiar with the search said.

The judge, who sits on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals and who clerked for retiring Justice

Anthony Kennedy,

has a lengthy track record of written decisions that Mr. Trump’s advisers have said ensure his reliability as a conservative vote on the court. But some social conservatives have fretted there is no single blockbuster ruling on a key issue like religious rights or the Second Amendment to excite Mr. Trump’s supporters, and that they don’t believe the judge is sufficiently committed to their cause.

Another handicap for Judge Kavanaugh: his ties to the George W. Bush White House. The judge served as a senior official under the former Republican president, and Mr. Trump has made plain his distaste for the Bush family and the former president’s administration.

While some people close to the search said Judge Barrett’s social conservatism may spell trouble during a confirmation vote, Mr. Trump was asking questions about her record Sunday morning, one person familiar with the search said.

Her supporters—believed to include Mr. Hannity—say that while she has spent a short time on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, her body of academic writing should cheer conservatives, as should her ties to the late Justice

Antonin Scalia,

for whom she clerked.

Mr. Trump has also faced a late push to pick Judge Hardiman, the official runner-up in his 2017 search for a successor to Justice Scalia that ultimately settled on

Neil Gorsuch.

Among his supporters are gun-rights activists, another person familiar with the search said. Mr. Trump called Judge Hardiman on Thursday after an initial interview Tuesday, a sign the judge, who sits on the Philadelphia-based Third Circuit Court of Appeals, was under serious consideration.

Judge Kethledge, of the Cincinnati-based Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, also met with the president last week.

White House aides, not knowing whom Mr. Trump would choose, devised rollout plans for each of the top contenders. They are preparing to lay out the nominee’s biography and judicial record in the hours after the announcement and are arranging for supporters to speak on TV.

The multiple candidates are aware of the process and have agreed to participate in it. Such an unveiling will likely be similar to the one for Justice Gorsuch: His selection was narrowed and then firmly settled the night before the announcement.

But the choice of a successor to Justice Kennedy has proved more challenging, those familiar with both processes say.

A central figure in the search is the White House counsel,

Don McGahn,

who is part of a conservative legal world that values judges who interpret the law by focusing on the precise legal text as written by Congress, as opposed to the purported reasons lawmakers had in mind when passing the law.

White House Chief of Staff

John Kelly

has played a minimal role in the selection, Mr. Trump’s advisers said.

One reason Mr. McGahn has stayed in his job while other senior White House aides have departed is that he prized the chance to help usher in two Supreme Court nominees, people familiar with the matter said.

Last fall, Mr. McGahn spoke at a meeting of the Federalist Society, a group that helped vet the list of 25 Supreme Court candidates that the White House has used in filling vacancies.

“Our opponents of judicial nominees frequently claim that the president has outsourced the selection of judges,” Mr. McGahn said at that time. “That’s completely false. I’ve been a member of the Federalist Society since law school. Still am. So, frankly, it seems like it’s been in-sourced.”

With binders filled with the candidates’ latest writings, Mr. McGahn has been privately making the case that it is risky to nominate someone with a thin record of judicial writings. Such considerations would appear to diminish Judge Barrett’s prospects, given her comparatively short stint on the bench.

Many conservatives want to avoid an appointment reminiscent of David Souter’s. He was nominated by former Republican President George H.W. Bush but often voted with the court’s liberal faction. Choosing a nominee with extensive writings minimizes that risk, in Mr. McGahn’s view, people close to the search said.

The president and Mr. McGahn spoke over the past week with most members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel that will provide the early test of the nominee’s confirmation prospects in the Senate, where the GOP holds a slender majority.

Committee member Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.) said in an interview Sunday that in a call late last week Mr. McGahn asked if he would agree to meet with the nominee; Mr. Coons said he would, despite concerns about what he sees as the direction of the search and a likely confirmation battle before November’s midterm elections.

“I urged [Mr. McGahn] not to nominate someone until after the midterms and urged them to nominate someone confirmable on a bipartisan basis,” Mr. Coons said.

A spokesman for

Sen. Orrin Hatch

(R., Utah), another member, said the senator has had multiple conversations with the president and Mr. McGahn about the nomination and what the confirmation process would look like.

“While Sen. Hatch expressed that some candidates would face an easier confirmation process than others, he is confident the Senate will confirm any of the distinguished Judges under consideration,” said the spokesman, Matt Whitlock.

Republicans hold a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate, and the party is already one vote short with

Sen. John McCain

of Arizona at home fighting brain cancer. Any nominee would need a simple majority to pass the Senate.

Write to Peter Nicholas at peter.nicholas@wsj.com and Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com



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