Trump Ups the Drama for His Supreme Court Pick

The president has asked both leading candidates for the job to come to Washington, moved up the announcement, and scheduled it for prime time.

Donald Trump greets members of the Supreme Court at his inauguration.
Donald Trump greets members of the Supreme Court at his inauguration. (Rick Wilking / Reuters)

All that’s missing is a rose ceremony right out of The Bachelor—a disappointing oversight for a president who was a reality-TV star and has a Rose Garden at his disposal.

Donald Trump plans to announce his first selection for the Supreme Court Tuesday night, offering the announcement at 8 p.m., in the middle of prime time. That’s a departure from the standard procedure in recent years, in which presidents have unveiled their nominees during the middle of the work day. But it’s not the only unusual element of the process. CNN reports that Trump has asked the top two contenders for the post, federal Judges Neil Gorsuch and Thomas Hardiman, to come for Washington for the occasion, adding to the drama of the event.

So far, most reporting seems to suggest that Gorsuch will be the pick. A Colorodan, Gorsuch sits on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court, a post to which he was appointed by George W. Bush in 2006. He worked as a law clerk to Judge David Sentelle, a respected conservative member of the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, and to Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy. Gorsuch, who is 49, brings a typically polished, elite resume to the job (Columbia undergrad, Harvard law degree, and a trip to Oxford University on a Marshall Scholarship), and legal conservatives view him as a fitting intellectual heir to Justice Antonin Scalia, whose death opened up a slot on the court.

But Hardiman is reportedly not out of the running. A member of the Third U.S. Circuit Court, sitting in Pittsburgh, Hardiman, age 51, was nominated to the federal bench by George W. Bush in 2003, and elevated to the appeals court four years later. The first member of his family to graduate from college, Hardiman attended Notre Dame and then got his law degree from Georgetown. But some conservatives are dubious about Hardiman. While his rulings have been largely conservative, some observers worry about his fidelity to ideology—in part because he has the backing of Maryanne Trump Barry, a colleague on the Third Circuit who was nominated by Bill Clinton, and just happens to be the president’s sister. Hardiman’s conservative skeptics see in him the threat of becoming like David Souter, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by George H.W. Bush but ended up with a very moderate record on the Court.

Both judges have strongly defended the Second Amendment from the bench, and it’s expected that both would be unfriendly toward abortion rights.

A third hopeful, Judge William Pryor of the 11th Circuit, seems to have fallen out of contention. But with Trump, no thing is certain. He seems to take special enjoyment in the drama of jilting suitors. During the presidential campaign, Trump seemed so set on Mike Pence as his vice-presidential candidate that many outlets reported it as a done deal. Soon, reliable reports emerged that Pence had not been chosen. Then Trump waited for a few hours before finally confirming the Pence pick. (The New York Post later reported that Trump had picked Pence, then changed his mind and decided he wanted New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, only to have his advisers convince him to stick with Pence.)

More recently, Trump aides strongly telegraphed that Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington would be his nominee for secretary of the interior, but Trump then changed his mind and offered the job to Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana.

In other words, any prospective nominee should wait to pop the champagne until he hears President Trump make the announcement publicly. That’s just one more way to augment the drama of the pick. The president previously said he would announce his nominee on Thursday, but after the widespread backlash over the weekend to his executive order on immigration, Trump announced he would unveil his selection Tuesday evening instead. That move seemed calculated to change the subject away from the unpopular order and to argue to conservatives that they are best off sticking with him, despite his liabilities, because of the importance of appointing conservative jurists to the Supreme Court.

All of the speculation will come to a head this evening with Trump’s announcement, which the White House is advertising like a major TV finale. Perhaps the most salient difference is that unlike the fired runners-up on The Apprentice, the losing contestant in this showdown will still have a lifetime appointment to the federal judge.