Trump introduced the nation to the man who could help shape his own presidential legacy
It amounted to Trump's biggest moment yet in his 11 days in office
For once, the ultimate showman gave Republicans exactly what they bargained for.
President Donald Trump, turning the ornate East Room of the White House into the centerpiece of a well-orchestrated television production, made good on his promise and handed his party a solid conservative nominee for the Supreme Court.
“I am a man of my word, I will do as I say,” Trump said Tuesday night, savoring the drama of the moment as he unveiled Judge Neil Gorsuch as his pick to succeed the late conservative icon Antonin Scalia on the nation’s highest court.
Trump materialized at 8:02 pm ET in the cross hall of the White House and took a stately stroll to his podium along a red carpet under a glistening chandelier before summoning the full theatrical power of his office for the first time.
In the same room where so many of his predecessors delivered historic pronouncements to the American people, Trump introduced the nation to the man who, at 49, could spend decades on the court, and help shape his own presidential legacy.
Trump’s biggest moment yet
It amounted to Trump’s biggest moment yet in his 11 days in office. Blanketed by television networks, it was also a do-over, as Trump cut a somber and statesmanlike figure after a chaotic, acrimonious start to his administration.
It was a sweet moment of vindication for the Republican Party – especially its social conservative and evangelical wings who had defied expectations that they would desert Trump over his three marriages and often vulgar tone.
Whatever he said, and whatever he did, conservatives clung on to the tiger’s tail, convinced Trump would deliver them a Supreme Court pick they could get behind. Looking on were Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, savoring their reward.
“Christmas just came early for conservatives,” said Sarah Isgur Flores, spokeswoman for Attorney General designate Jeff Sessions, encapsulating the universally positive response to Gorsuch from conservatives.
Amid growing rumblings about Trump’s behavior and demeanor and the competence of his administration from inside the GOP, the announcement was an expertly choreographed moment that could help knit the party together.
Even his critics grudgingly admitted Trump’s skills as a political impresario took some beating.
“Whatever u think of him as President (what I think is no secret) Trump’s darn good at TV show production. President Trump, the Reality Show,” CNN contributor Ana Navarro tweeted.
Summoned to Washington
One person close to the decision said both Gorsuch and the other finalist, Thomas Hardiman, had been summoned to Washington.
In the end, Hardiman only drove a few hours east of Pittsburgh.
“The reality is that to the best of my knowledge he never left the state of Pennsylvania,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday night after the announcement. “He never was in DC, nor did he ever leave the commonwealth.”
The administration was taking extraordinary measures to build suspense and keep the final selection under wraps for as close to the announcement as possible.
White House sources acknowledged Tuesday night they left the impression with reporters that he was coming to Washington. Hardiman appeared to play along. One source said Hardiman was given the impression that there could be a spot for him should another vacancy open up.
Meanwhile, sources familiar with what transpired said that Gorsuch had given the press waiting outside his house in Boulder, Colorado, the slip on Monday by sneaking out on a dirt road and heading to the airport. Spicer said Gorsuch was flown to Washington on a military aircraft and taken to a hotel, before being spirited unseen into the White House Tuesday night.
His debut could hardly have gone better for the President and its flawless execution set up a political climb for Democrats who vowed to oppose whoever he picked.
He lauded Gorsuch’s credentials as stellar, boasting about a resume bloated by studies at Columbia, Harvard and Oxford.
“The qualifications of Judge Gorsuch are beyond dispute. I only hope Democrats and Republicans can come together for once, for the good of the country,” Trump said.
The President said he had spent considerable time poring over the writings and decisions of Gorsuch, a man of the outdoors who fishes, hunts and skis and currently sits on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
But the President is also known to place great value in someone’s appearance and might have concluded that Gorsuch, tall, fit with a square jaw and immaculately cropped gray hair looks the part of a Supreme Court Justice.
Few Presidents get to name a justice within a few days of their inauguration, and Trump can thank McConnell for his decision to block Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, Judge Merrick Garland, for the best part of a year.
Gorsuch’s nomination, assuming he is confirmed, will cement the prevailing ideological balance of the court before Scalia’s death, with four conservatives, four liberals and Justice Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote.
Known for a florid pen, a sense of humor and unimpeachable conservative positions on religious liberty, guns, business regulation and administrative power, Gorsuch may be the perfect candidate to emulate the operatic flamboyance and preference for legal textualism and originalism of Scalia, who died nearly a year ago.
“He is Scalia, in many respects,” said Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator who is now a CNN contributor.
With the late justice’s widow, Maureen, in the audience, Gorsuch called Scalia “a lion of the law.”
Keeping his promises
Trump, meanwhile, is turning out to be a man who keeps his promises, however much controversy they ignite.
In 11 days in office, he has pushed to repeal Obamacare, slapped a temporary ban on immigrants from seven Muslim nations, pulled America out of a vast trans-Pacific trade pact and ordered the building of a border wall.
Now he has delivered a conservative jurist, a move that will likely do much to solidify his political position within his own party.
The nomination could also buy him some political capital amid raging controversies over the inept rollout of his immigration measures that kept many Republicans in the dark and raised questions over the basic competence of his administration.
Supporting a Supreme Court nominee is one of the most intricate tests a White House will face however — the first 48 hours will be crucial for Gorsuch despite apparently favorable winds behind his nomination. Any oversights in vetting of his personal, legal and financial history on the part of the administration are likely to be ruthlessly exploited by liberals who oppose his nomination.
If it was a night to savor for the GOP, it was a bitter one for Democrats.
This could have been the moment when a President Hillary Clinton unveiled the nomination for Supreme Court justice that would have the potential to tilt the bench towards liberals for a generation.
Precursor to the next fight
Instead, the party’s leaders were left to launch a fight that is unlikely to halt the ascension of Gorsuch to the nation’s top bench – and could ultimately be just a precursor to a second Trump Supreme Court nomination that would consolidate a clear conservative majority that could last for years.
During a CNN town hall Tuesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described Gorsuch as a “very hostile” appointment well outside the American mainstream. The top Senate Democrat, Chuck Schumer, said the GOP will need to surmount the 60-vote barrier in the Senate to get Gorsuch confirmed.
Red state Democrats with re-election races next year, however, will come under intense pressure to back Trump’s nominee.
Still, a liberal lobbying effort roared into action within minutes of Trump’s announcement.
Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard said that Gorsuch would do nothing to preserve environmental regulations needed to fight climate change.
“There is no evidence in Gorsuch’s track record that indicates he would be a champion for these legal protections,” she said.
Some activists didn’t even wait for Trump to name his pick – just the fact he was picking anyone was enough.
“Democrats must shut the Senate down if Republicans try to ram through Trump’s nominee,” said Murshed Zaheed, political director of the social change network CREDO. “There is no room for collaboration with a thin-skinned, tantrum-prone tyrant who, in just the first few days of his administration, has already displayed a reckless disregard for the rule of law.”
CNN’s Dan Merica, Kevin Liptak, Allie Malloy, Jim Acosta, Pamela Brown and Ariane De Vogue contributed to this story