White House Counsel Don McGahn reconnected with his raison d’être on Wednesday, after Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement.
More than once in the last several months, McGahn has thought about leaving his job, sources say, out of exhaustion from the perpetual grind of an unprecedented White House.
But one issue in particular – some might call it a mission – has motivated him to stay: judges.
In the early days of Trump’s campaign, McGahn began an effort to reshape the federal judiciary. He’s dedicated himself not only to the Supreme Court, but to lower courts as well. Working with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, unprecedented numbers of judges have been confirmed.
The effort has paid off. The Trump administration had a banner week in the courts. With the addition of President Donald Trump’s first nominee, Neil Gorsuch, conservatives won over a dozen 5-4 cases at the Supreme Court this term. The President faced sweet vindication when a 5-4 majority reversed a lower court and upheld his travel ban. A federal appeals court scaled back a broad injunction in a case concerning sanctuary cities.
And then, in a move that will likely ensure a rightward tilt of the Supreme Court for decades to come, Kennedy announced his retirement.
An elated Trump told an audience Wednesday night: “We have to pick a great one, we have to pick one that’s going to be there for 40 years,”
That would be until the year 2058 for a pick the White House wants to unveil by July 9, an official familiar with the process told CNN.
“This will move quickly,” the official said.
White House war room
Many of the people who were central to the Gorsuch nomination, led by McGahn, are reassembling.
After visiting with Kennedy on Wednesday, the President called Leonard Leo, the executive vice president of the conservative Federalist Society, who advises the administration on judicial picks.
In an interview, Leo said the President was “excited” about getting the new process going.
“The President is very committed to the ‘Gorsuch model’ and a very disciplined selection process where the nominee has courage and independence of judgment and will interpret the Constitution the way the framers meant it to be,” Leo said.
A shortlist has emerged drawn from a longer list the President released months ago. Five judges – Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, Thomas Hardiman, Amul Thapar and Raymond Kethledge – have made the shortlist as well as one senator, Utah Republican Mike Lee. A source says the President has yet to meet Kavanaugh and Barrett.
Trump interviewed Hardiman the last time around, and his senior advisers met with Kethledge. The President has met Thapar and Lee, but not in the context of a judicial vacancy.
Once a nominee is announced a “Sherpa” will be assigned to guide him or her through the meet-and-greets with senators. The nominee will eventually fill out a questionnaire. In addition they will have to go through so-called “murder boards,” which are essentially practice sessions to prepare for hearings.
McConnell said the Senate will vote to confirm a nominee “this fall.”
Democrats gird for fight
Some liberals admit quietly that they’ve been caught flatfooted at times and now it’s time for a ferocious fight. Indeed, after Republicans refused to hold hearings for President Barack Obama’s 2016 nominee, Merrick Garland, the issue went relatively quiet during the summer months before the last presidential campaign.
It seemed almost as if some – stunned by a McConnell-led strategy to delay the vote – didn’t grasp the consequences.
Now they do. Abortion restrictions. Affirmative action. Health care. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Immigration. LGBT rights.
“Democrats are just beginning to realize this is a fight for the very soul of our country,” said Brian Fallon, a former spokesman for Hillary Clinton who has recently launched a group called Demand Justice. “If we don’t rise to the occasion, we will be living with the lasting effects of Trumpism for 40 years,” he said.
“Even taking back Congress in November will not be able to undo the damage,” Fallon added.
For now, the strategy is twofold: Educate the public and try to peel off votes.
With the hashtag #Ditchthelist, they are pushing back on an established list of potential nominees the Trump administration has released. And they are focusing on two major issues.
The first is Roe v. Wade, the landmark opinion that legalized abortion. Without Kennedy on the court, liberals fear, it could be in jeopardy. And even if the court does not officially overrule precedent, liberals and abortion rights groups are concerned that states will push for more restrictions.
“The right to access abortion in this country is on the line,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Senate Democrats blasted out a missive the day after Kennedy’s announcement. “Roe v. Wade is under assault” was the headline. The release noted that at least 20 states have legislatures that are poised to enact abortion bans immediately if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
The Democrats also plan to highlight the administration’s most recent move, in a court case in Texas, to stop defending key provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The provisions, which have proved extremely popular with Americans, forced major changes to the health insurance industry.