President Trump announced Monday night that Brett Kavanaugh, a federal appellate court judge based in Washington, D.C., is his pick to replace outgoing Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy — a nominee who, if confirmed, will cement a conservative majority on the nation’s highest court.
Trump made the announcement from the East Room of the White House.
“I’ve often heard that, other than matters of war and peace, this is the most important decision a president will make,” Trump said. “The Supreme Court is entrusted with the safeguarding of the crown jewel of our republic, the Constitution of the United States.”
“Judge Kavanaugh has impeccable credentials, unsurpassed qualifications and a proven commitment to equal justice under the law,” the president continued. “Throughout legal circles he is considered a judge’s judge, a true thought leader among his peers. He is a brilliant jurist with a clear and effective writing style universally regarded as one of the finest and sharpest legal minds of our time.”
Kavanaugh told Trump was “grateful” and “humbled by your confidence in me.”
“Throughout this process I have witnessed first hand your appreciation for the vital role of the American judiciary. No president has ever consulted more widely or talked with more people from more backgrounds to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination,” Kavanaugh said. “Justice Kennedy devoted his career to securing liberty. I am deeply honored to fill his seat on the Supreme Court.”
He added: “My judicial philosophy is straightforward: A judge must be independent and must interpret the law, not make the law. A judge must interpret statutes as written and a judge must interpret as written, informed by history and tradition and precedent.”
Kavanaugh worked closely with independent counsel Kenneth Starr during the Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton. As documented in the latest episode of the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery,” Kavanaugh debunked the conspiracy theories that the Clintons were responsible for former aide Vince Foster’s death before becoming the primary author of the report laying out the case for Clinton’s impeachment. Kavanaugh was concerned with the more explicit sexual details of the report and attempted to redact them just before its publication.
One of the possible grounds for Clinton’s impeachment in Kavanaugh’s report was the fact Clinton lied to his aides and the American public via his press team. In a 2009 piece for the Minnesota Law Review, Kavanaugh said that he believed presidents should not be subject to civil lawsuits or criminal investigations in office because they were “time-consuming and distracting.”
After assisting in George W. Bush’s efforts in the 2000 Florida recount, Kavanaugh joined the White House, first as a counsel to the president and then as a staff secretary. Bush nominated Kavanaugh for a position on the D.C. Circuit in July 2003, but his confirmation took nearly three years because Democrats contended he was too partisan for the federal bench. Kavanaugh was called an “unqualified judicial nominee” by the New York Times before his May 2006 confirmation on a 57-36 vote. In 2016, the conservative National Review wrote said that Kavanaugh’s opinions were “clear, consistent, thorough, and thoughtful” and had an “analytical clarity” that would make the late Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia proud.
SCOTUSBlog, a news site about the Supreme Court, has described Kavanaugh as “generally bringing a pragmatic approach” to his decisions but with a conservative judicial philosophy. In analyzing him as a possible replacement for either Kennedy or Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the blog Empirical SCOTUS said Kavanaugh would most likely be to the right of either Kennedy or Ginsburg on the court, but not as far to the right as Justice Clarence Thomas.
In his time on the bench, Kavanaugh has declared the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unconstitutional and ruled against Obama-era environmental regulations. Kavanaugh’s name being floated as a nominee has caused some infighting on the right, with one group stating that the judge was not anti-abortion enough in a case involving an immigrant girl requesting the procedure. Multiple conservative writers have defended Kavanaugh against this claim.
According to the Associated Press, Trump reached a decision earlier in the day.
Trump interviewed a total of seven candidates last week and on Monday narrowed his list of finalists to a pair of federal appeals court judges, Brett Kavanaugh and Thomas Hardiman, the New York Times reported Monday.
The president had been considering two other judges — Amy Coney Barrett and Raymond Kethledge — before Hardiman emerged as a possible nominee on Sunday.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday night after spending the weekend at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Trump said he had yet to settle on a nominee but was “getting very close.”
“They’re excellent,” the president said about all four of the possible final choices. “Every one. You can’t go wrong.”
But on Monday afternoon, both Barrett and Kethledge were at their homes on in Indiana and Michigan, hundreds of miles away from Trump’s primetime spectacle in Washington.
“I can’t confirm nor deny anything,” Barrett told reporters, “but you can see that I’m here.”
The looming confirmation battle
The announcement of Kennedy’s retirement last month sent shock waves across the nation, with Trump and his fellow Republicans poised to shift the court’s ideological balance to the right — and shape the country’s judicial future for generations to come.
Abortion has emerged as a key issue in the looming confirmation battle, as Republicans hold a one-vote majority (51-49) in the Senate and need at least 50 to confirm Trump’s pick.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who supports abortion rights, said last week that she would not support someone who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that protects a woman’s right to have an abortion.
“I believe very much that Roe v. Wade is settled law,” Collins said on ABC’s “This Week.” “A candidate who would overturn Roe v. Wade would not be acceptable to me, because that would indicate an activist agenda that I don’t want to see a judge have.”
Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, were among five GOP senators who met with Trump last month to discuss the Supreme Court vacancy. Both are seen as key swing votes.
After Trump’s announcement, Collins issued a statement citing Kavanaugh’s “impressive credentials and extensive experience,” and vowed to “conduct a careful, thorough vetting.”
“I look forward to Judge Kavanaugh’s public hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and to questioning him in a meeting in my office,” she added.
“Tonight the president begins a forced march back to the days when women’s health care choices were made by government,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a statement late Monday evening. “There can be no mistaking Trump’s Supreme Court nomination for anything but what it is: a direct attempt to overturn Roe. v. Wade.”
“I am so disheartened that President Trump would choose such a radical, anti-consumer, anti-woman jurist to be his nominee for the Supreme Court,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in a statement.
He added: “There is a fight coming, and I’m ready for it.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont issued a similar statement.
“Let us be clear: President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh will be a rubber-stamp for an extreme, right-wing agenda pushed by corporations and billionaires,” Sanders said. “The coming Senate debate over the replacement of retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is about the future of Roe v. Wade, campaign finance reform, voting rights, workers’ rights, health care, climate change, environmental protection and gun safety.”
He added: “I do not believe a person with those views should be given a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court. We must mobilize the American people to defeat Trump’s right-wing, reactionary nominee.”
Dozens of protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court on Monday ahead of Trump’s announcement, and the size of the crowd increased immediately after.
The ‘McConnell rule’
Trump said he expects a swift confirmation of Kennedy’s replacement before the midterm elections. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to vote on Kennedy’s successor “this fall.”
But many Democrats said the Senate should follow the standard set by McConnell and refuse to vote on Trump’s next nominee to the high court. President Barack Obama’s choice for Scalia’s replacement, Merrick Garland, was blocked by congressional Republicans, who argued that the seat should be left unfilled until after the 2016 election.
“There should be no consideration of a Supreme Court nominee until the American people have a say,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., tweeted. “Leader McConnell set that standard when he denied Judge Garland a hearing for nearly a year, and the Senate should follow the McConnell Standard now.”
Last week, McConnell reportedly told Trump that Kethledge and Hardiman presented the fewest obstacles to being confirmed. But Leonard Leo, an official of the Federalist Society who is Trump’s top Supreme Court adviser, said Sunday that the pair were lesser known, and it would therefore take longer to line up conservative support for them.
“It’s important to have people who are extremely well known and have distinguished records,” Leo said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sees no such issues.
“Republicans are holding four lottery tickets,” Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And all of them are winners.”
The White House invited four Democratic senators from red states — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama — to Monday night’s event. All four declined to attend.
The Mueller probe
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., raised concern over Kavanaugh’s position that a president should be shielded from litigation before leaving office. Trump continues to be dogged by special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation into possible collusion in the 2016 election or potential obstruction of the probe by the president himself.
“President Trump is currently a subject of an ongoing criminal investigation,” Booker said in a statement. “There is a clear conflict of interest inherent in the president nominating someone who could be the deciding vote on a number of potential issues from that investigation that could come before the court.
Booker continued: “The fact that Kavanaugh believes that a president should not be subject to civil litigation or criminal investigation while in office means that Trump just nominated a justice who has already reached conclusions on these serious questions. That should raise enormous red flags.”
Additional reporting by Christopher Wilson, Michael Walsh, Kadia Tubman and Laina Yost.
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