For all his bluster and choreographed suspense, President Donald Trump’s blockbuster Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh was all but locked in from the start.
Of course, the President put on a show for the cameras, materializing before a national TV audience Monday night at the White House to end a selection process he had spooled out for nearly two weeks.
He was there, as promised, to entrust his presidential legacy and the hopes of conservatives everywhere to a nominee who would emerge from obscurity to inherit the considerable power to redraw the ideological balance of the Supreme Court for a generation.
But two people close to the selection process said that Kavanaugh, a political operative turned DC Appeals Court judge had been one of the favorites in Trump’s mind even before Anthony Kennedy announced he would vacate the nation’s top bench last month.
White House principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah, speaking to reporters Tuesday, denied the White House made any assurances to Kennedy that his replacement would be Kavanaugh.
And the President walked away from a private chat with the retiring justice convinced that Kavanaugh – who once clerked for Kennedy – was the top choice, the sources said.
Trump did go through the process. He interviewed several other candidates and spoke to scores of aides and friends as he mulled his decision – and even after he made his choice.
Sources said Trump did want to see how trial balloons about Kavanaugh went down in the conservative media echo chamber, and was heartened to see key conservatives like Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and writers for Breitbart rally behind him in recent days.
“He wanted to see how it was playing out and who was coming to his defense,” a source said.
A senior White House official said that the President finalized his decision on Sunday night, and called Kavanaugh to let him know. He also spoke to Vice President Mike Pence and White House Counsel Don McGahn – who had subtly pushed Kavanaugh’s candidacy.
Still, with his eye, as ever on ratings, Trump did not let it be known until mid-afternoon on Monday that he had made up his mind.
Monday night, striding into the East Room, a cockpit of presidential lore where John F. Kennedy’s body lay in repose and Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, Trump lifted his chin, narrowed his eyes and savored his moment in history.
“I have often heard that other than matters of war and peace, this is the most important decision a President will make,” Trump said, for once not exaggerating the size of the stakes.
An empty seat below the presidential podium bore a piece of paper reserving it for the unidentified spouse of the nominee so as not to tip off nosy reporters and spoil the big reveal.
In an expectant crowd were the president’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, another key character in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and long list of Republican senators, conservative grandees and White House staff.
The White House had invited red state Democratic senators to the party – twisting the knife since Trump’s selection of the mild-mannered Kavanaugh may prove tough to oppose for those up for re-election in states where Trump won big in 2016. None of them showed up.
The most leaky White House in modern history managed to keep Trump’s secret, though sightings of other shortlisted alternative picks Amy Coney Barrett and Raymond Kethledge at their homes in Indiana and Michigan, respectively, earlier in the evening had stolen some of the suspense.
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And pity poor Judge Thomas Hardiman, who just missed out on being the President’s first Supreme Court pick, and was the unlucky bridesmaid again.
If anything, Trump’s made-for-television announcement lacked a little drama – not a criticism that can often be leveled against this spotlight-craving disrupter of a commander-in-chief.
The President behaved with decorum and grace, as he unveiled an utterly conventional pick that any Republican president could have made.
“President Trump has made an outstanding decision,” former President George W. Bush said, while his brother, dubbed “low energy” Jeb by Trump during the 2016 campaign, also praised the pick on Twitter.
After all, Kavanaugh worked for both Presidents Bush. His wife Ashley, who appeared with him on stage once Trump revealed his name, along with daughters Margaret and Elizabeth, once worked as a personal secretary for George W. Bush.
In a stunning turn of events, Trump, the ultimate political outsider had managed to settle on a consummate political insider as the most consequential Supreme Court pick in decades.
By now the White House Supreme Court pick rollout machine is well oiled.
Everything went off without a hitch on the night for Kavanaugh as his debut joined that of Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch in January 2017 as the most well run moments in an otherwise chaotic White House.
Heading into Monday night, Washington girded for a fierce battle of perception over Trump’s selection, given that Democrats probably lack the numbers in the Senate to thwart the nomination.
Mid-afternoon, Senate Democratic Minority leader Chuck Schumer was on his feet in the chamber, warning of the dire impact of whomever Trump picked on two issues vital to the mid-term election hopes of Democrats, Obamacare and a woman’s right to choose.
Later in the evening protestors outside the Supreme Court chanted “Hey, hey, no no, Brett Kavanaugh must go.”
But Kavanaugh’s low key manner and Washington insider status may make him a tough man to demonize. On the flip side, he may enthuse conservatives needed to save the GOP in November less than some other potential Supreme Court picks.
The nominee’s political savvy – in one famous photo, he is seen arm in arm with Bush-era Machiavel Karl Rove – shone through his own speech.
He spoke movingly of his family, joked how his daughters’ basketball teams knew him as “Coach K” and recalled that the day after his first date with his wife, on September 10, 2001, they fled the White House after being told a hijacked plane was incoming.
He came across as a decent, humble family man, in a way that may complicate efforts of liberals to use him as the poster boy for what many see as a new front on the war on women they believe a conservative majority on the court will declare.
Kavanaugh also had a clear, if subtle message for conservatives who put their faith in Trump to change the balance of the Supreme Court and became a vital plank of his 2016 coalition.
“My judicial philosophy is straightforward. A judge must be independent and must interpret the law, not make the law,” Kavanaugh said.
“A judge must interpret statutes as written. And a judge must interpret the Constitution as written, informed by history and tradition and precedent.”
It was that faith in conservative jurisprudence that helped him get over the line.
“Unlike some folks in the mix, he had the longest and deepest record on constitutional and precedent setting legal cases and he showed a consistency on interpreting the text of the law as it was written and intended,” said the senior White House official
“You know what you’re going to get with this guy,” the official said, perhaps reflecting on previous court nominations that have pleased conservatives in the moment – but disappointed them over the long term – not unlike Kennedy himself.
It also didn’t hurt that Kavanaugh emerged from his years in the White House with an expansive view on executive power and a belief that presidents should not be distracted by lawsuits or investigations while in office.
That will be a red flag for Democrats in Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing given that Trump’s attempts to test the boundaries of his office often end up in the courts, and that a decision on whether he must testify to Mueller may ultimately end up before the nine Supreme Court justices.
But the White House is convinced it has a winner.
“Judge Kavanaugh has impeccable credentials, unsurpassed qualifications and a proven commitment to equal justice under the law,” Trump said Monday.
CNN’s Ariane de Vogue, Veronica Stracqualursi and Allison Malloy contributed to this report.