White House sets up SCOTUS war room without its former maestro

White House sets up SCOTUS war room without its former maestroSeptember 22, 2020

The conservative world is firing up its well-oiled machinery to fight its third Supreme Court battle in four years. But at the White House, a fresh crop of top aides is taking the reins.

Gone is the man who shepherded through President Donald Trump’s first two Supreme Court picks — former White House counsel Don McGahn. In his place are top White House aides new to the very particular process of nominating a Supreme Court justice. Both McGahn’s replacement, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, and chief of staff Mark Meadows were not around the last two times Trump placed a justice on the high court.

White House aides met Monday to plot their path to confirming a replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg before the end of Trump’s first term in January. On their list: Assemble an internal war room and prepare a fierce counteroffensive against Democratic complaints, even as they try to simultaneously secure enough votes in a Republican-controlled Senate where two Republican members have already indicated opposition.

Aides and advisers know they must act quickly with the presidential election less than 50 days away. Trump is expected to announce his pick as early as Friday, ahead of the first presidential debate on Tuesday, Sept. 29.

“Time is your enemy,” said one Republican familiar with the judicial selection process. “That is the No. 1 lesson from [Brett] Kavanaugh.”

Trump and his team have zeroed in two female judges as the top candidates — Amy Coney Barrett, seen as the frontrunner, and Barbara Lagoa — but the president plans to interview each of the five candidates he is considering, said one White House official. He will want to interview the top candidate in-person, said a second White House aide.

On Monday, Trump personally met with Barrett in the Oval Office shortly before he left for a campaign rally in Ohio. And Trump told reporters he had spoken to other potential candidates over the past two days.

Barrett already has a history with Trump. The president interviewed her roughly two years ago before settling on nominating eventual Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The meeting was not held under ideal circumstances — Barrett had pink eye and wore sunglasses to the interview, leading to some awkwardness, according to four people familiar with the process.

But Barrett has the strong backing of several influential anti-abortion groups, and her record excites the Trump base of evangelicals and Catholic voters, whose support for the president has dwindled during the 2020 presidential race.

The president is not asking candidates if they will overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case establishing abortion rights, said one White House aide, who called the focus on the landmark abortion rights ruling “over-hyped.” Democrats see the fate of Roe v. Wade — as well as a crop of new abortion restriction laws — as a key issue at stake with this confirmation process.

Barrett has a broad contingent of support among the White House staff, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaning toward her potential nomination in recent days, said two Republicans familiar with the process.

Lagoa’s fiercest backers come from her home state of Florida, with her allies and some Trump aides arguing her nomination could help Trump secure support in the key swing state. Florida Republicans hope Trump meets with Lagoa because “he’ll fall in love with her and be impressed,” said one Republican close to the White House. “Evangelicals want Amy and that is their horse, so after Kavanaugh they would get their wish in his mind. I think he’s struggling.”

Although top White House aides are new to the process, the West Wing has a detailed road map to follow from the confirmation battles for both Kavanaugh and Justice Neil Gorsuch.

McGahn guided the confirmation for both justices, working closely with McConnell and the Senate Judiciary Committee. In addition to creating a smooth process for Gorsuch, it was McGahn who urged Kavanaugh to express anger in the hearing over sexual assault charges against him, during which Trump considered pulling the nomination. Kavanaugh’s performance ultimately rallied conservatives and impressed Trump.

Players from the past fights say the White House should move the upcoming confirmation as swiftly as possible and not waste too much time trying to compromise with Democrats, who are unlikely to drop their fierce opposition to any Trump nominee before the presidential election.

Former aides say by delaying the announcement until later this week, the White House gives itself more time to help the nominee prepare a speech and plan an event in the East Room where Trump will officially introduce his pick to the American public.

“Announcing at the end of the week allows him the opportunity to prolong the momentum of news coverage of the nominee, and it shows that Republicans are likely going to use this as an election-year issue,” said Ron Bonjean, a longtime Republican operative who served as a communications strategist for the Gorsuch confirmation.

“This has become a political campaign in and of itself within an election-year campaign,” Bonjean added. “They have to be ready with a full complement of staff dedicated toward defining and protecting the nominee and in careful coordination with the Senate.”

Cipollone will lead the confirmation battle from the White House counsel’s office, with every lawyer from the counsel’s office providing support. Senators already know Cipollone well from the Trump impeachment proceedings in January, when he was one of lead lawyers defending the president during his Senate trial.

Meadows will work closely with Cipollone and lead on outreach to Capitol Hill, where he served as a congressman for seven years.

The White House has no plans right now to hire anyone new to help with the war room, but that could change in the coming days. One official said the West Wing is standing up a war room composed of officials from the White House counsel’s office, rapid response team and the communications shop — and aides have been in regular contact with staff from McConnell’s office.

Vice President Mike Pence referenced that coordination in an interview Monday afternoon with CBS.

“We’re working already with the Republican leadership in the Senate to make arrangements for the process to move forward,” Pence said.

The White House will also get outside help. Several well-funded conservative groups, including the Federalist Society, Judicial Crisis Network and Americans for Prosperity, will generate support for the nominee, placing surrogates on TV and spending millions on ads. On Monday, the Judicial Crisis Network unveiled a $2.2 million ad buy, which will appear in states such as Colorado, Iowa, Maine, North Carolina and Utah — all places with Republican senators who are not considered locks to support Trump’s pick.

One White House aide said the chance to fill another Supreme Court vacancy just days before the election has both shocked and excited White House staff, changing the vibe inside the West Wing during a tough election.

“A vote prior to the election — that is unlikely. But a hearing before the election with a vote in the lame duck is more likely,” said one former senior administration official. “Senators have moments of skittishness, and people need to be rallied around the ins and outs of it. It is a process.”

Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

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