Politico - With Trump planning to announce his nominee on Thursday, but now considering an earlier rollout, his allies are moving quickly to sharpen a battle plan, and the first formal meeting of the de facto war room for the coming confirmation fight took place on Friday at the Capitol Hill headquarters of the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Friday.
Inside the room were officials from the White House, Senate GOP leadership and the outside groups that have spent months researching the records of Trump’s potential picks and are now prepared to unload at least $10 million in ads backing the nominee—much of it directed at Senate Democrats up for election in 2018 in states Trump carried.
The session was informal and introductory — many around the room were only meeting for the first time — but attendees agreed upon the enormity of the undertaking before them. "The Supreme Court,” as one person who was at Friday’s gathering put it, "is a big fricking deal.”
They met the same day Trump signed his controversial order suspending the admission of refugees to the U.S. and imposing new restrictions on non-citizens wishing to enter the country. A federal judge ordered an emergency stay Saturday night for green card holders and others detained at airports around the country, and other lawsuits have been filed elsewhere around the country, setting up a challenge that may reach the nation’s highest court.
That fight underscored the power Trump’s pick will have to determine whether his agenda stands, and not just the Court’s stance on a host of issues conservatives have long been concerned about, from limiting abortion access to rolling back gun control. Congressional Democrats are now planning to rally on the steps of the Supreme Court on Monday night.
Trump has said he plans to make an announcement Thursday naming his pick to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who died almost a year ago, but White House officials said the pick could be made public sooner. Republicans prevented former President Barack Obama from filling the seat, blocking even a hearing on his nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.
Inside the White House, the selection and confirmation process is moving along multiple tracks, according to people familiar with the administration’s plans.
Planning for an expected media and surrogate blitz is being overseen by White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Four of his deputies attended Friday’s meeting at the NRSC, including communications adviser Boris Epshteyn, a lawyer by training, rapid-response specialist Steven Cheung and deputy communications director Jessica Ditto; and staffer Alexa Henning.
Behind the scenes, Trump’s team has tried to lay the groundwork for a smooth confirmation. One official familiar with the process said that either White House Counsel Don McGahn or Vice President Mike Pence have spoken to almost every Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to sound them out on potential picks. White House legislative affairs director Marc Short is managing the Hill outreach efforts.
White House counsel Don McGahn has continued his task of vetting those under consideration. During the presidential transition, Trump had a legal team of five or more people working out of the seventh floor of the official transition offices researching and preparing for the Supreme Court nomination, according to another person familiar with the matter.
America Rising, a GOP research firm that had two representatives at Friday’s meeting, has also combed through the work history of the potential nominees, as has the Judicial Crisis Network, which was among attendees.
The two leading contenders, according to multiple people close to the search process, are Judge Thomas Hardiman of the Third Circuit and Judge Neil Gorsuch of the Tenth Circuit, both of whom were confirmed to appeals courts without a dissenting vote.
Judge Bill Pryor of the 11th Circuit is now considered a longer shot. "We don’t want to pick a fight,” said an official involved in the selection process. "Pryor would be a fight.”
Trump echoed that thinking on Friday, when he said a top consideration was choosing someone "who’s going to get approved.”
But Trump has also said he’d support using the so-called nuclear option—ending the Senate filibuster—if Democrats seek to block his pick. Justices currently require 60 votes to be confirmed, meaning Trump would have to bring eight Democrats over to his side. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has threatened to oppose any Trump pick that falls out of the "mainstream.”
"This is will be the most robust confirmation effort in the history of the Republican Party,” said Republican strategist Greg Mueller, a veteran of past Supreme Court fights whose PR firm, CRC Public Relations, was also represented at Friday’s gathering.
Marge Baker, executive vice president of the liberal group People for the American Way, said none of the 21 names Trump promised to select from during the campaign were acceptable. "They’re all going to be a fight,” Baker said. "This is not a question of deference to a president. And if we’re talking about deference, what kind of deference did anyone show to Merrick Garland?”
The Judicial Crisis Network has said it will spend $10 million boosting Trump’s choice, targeting mostly Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2018 in states that Trump carried. "They’re going to have to choose between the interest of their constituents — who clearly wanted Donald Trump to choose the next Supreme Court justice — and Chuck Schumer’s plan to obstruct this vacancy for the next four years,” said Carrie Severino, the group’s chief counsel.
Many involved in the outside efforts are veterans of court battles dating back to the Bush administration. "You feel like a band, kind of like U2,” said Gary Marx, a Republican strategist involved in mobilizing conservative groups on behalf of the nominee. "You’ve done a number of world tours, a whole lot of albums and looking to release another major one.”