How a behind-the-scenes battle of Trump advisers ended with Kavanaugh as Supreme Court pick
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's selection of Brett Kavanaugh on Monday as his Supreme Court nominee capped days of leaks, tea-leaf reading and rumors that surfaced as the president deliberated over an ever-shortening list candidates.
An intense battle unfolded behind the scenes for the coveted Supreme Court seat to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, mostly centering on the strengths and weaknesses of the frontrunner, Kavanaugh.
Various advisers to Trump, both inside and outside the White House, were giving the president conflicting advice on Kavanaugh and the other three appeals court judges who ended up on the final short list: Amy Coney Barrett of Indiana, Raymond Kethledge of Michigan, and Thomas Hardiman of Pennsylvania.
Through it all, Kavanaugh remained the favorite, said Trump administration officials and outside advisers who consulted with the White House on the search.
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Kavanaugh, a Washington, D.C.-based appeals judge, had the support of prominent legal advisers, including White House Counsel Don McGahn – as well as Justice Kennedy, who spoke highly of his former clerk, according to the sources, who spoke to USA Today on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations.
Media coverage of the jockeying over the court pick raised the profiles of Kavanaugh's other three rivals, and one outside adviser said the final selection became "a real jump ball" at different points.
White House officials said Trump seriously considered all the contenders.
"The president had a very deliberative process," counselor Kellyanne Conway said after the Kavanaugh ceremony.
Intentionally or not, the Trump administration sowed uncertainty by asking all four finalists to prepare for Monday's prime-time ceremony.
Guest lists, speeches
All were asked to prepare remarks for Trump's big event, advisers said. They were also asked to provide lists of guests they would invite to the White House – requests that apparently led some supporters to believe their favored candidate would be the nominee.
Trump liked Hardiman's up-by-the-bootstraps life story, including the fact that he put himself through law school by driving a cab. He saw Kethledge as erudite and it also helped that he was from the politically important state of Michigan. Trump liked the fact that Barrett had strong support from religious conservatives and was intrigued by the possibility of nominating a woman.
The anti-Kavanaugh candidates also had drawbacks, advisers said: Barrett has been an appeals judge for less than a year. Some conservatives questioned Kethledge's record in immigration cases. Others questioned whether Hardiman was conservative enough.
Trump also heard from critics of Kavanaugh, many of whom cited his work in the George W. Bush administration and played on the president's antipathy to the Bush family.
The Bush factor did not play a large role in Trump's thinking, advisers said, as the president considered Kavanaugh's record in total.
That record included more than 300 written opinions, many of them in support of one of Trump's favorite causes: deregulation. Trump was also impressed with Kavanaugh's academic credentials: he is a graduate of Yale and Yale Law School.
Justice Kennedy's high regard for Kavanaugh also helped Trump decide, advisers said.
Trump went back and forth on the merits of the four finalists before zeroing in on Kavanaugh as he spent last weekend at his golf club in New Jersey.
On Sunday, after he returned from Bedminster, N.J., Trump invited Kavanaugh to the White House for a final talk and offered him the job later that night.
After that, Trump told McGahn and Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump notified Justice Kennedy about the selection Monday morning even as many White House officials remained in the dark.
Keeping it secret
By that time, the game was more about keeping the Kavanaugh pick a secret than about the pick itself.
Many advisers believed it was still a two-man race between Kavanaugh and Hardiman. Only by midday did aides say Trump had made his final selection.
Hardiman was scheduled to be in Washington to attend a judicial conference on Monday, spurring speculation he might go to a White House ceremony afterward. Barrett and Kethledge, meanwhile, were assumed to be out of the running when it became clear they were in their homes in Indiana and Michigan.
Even many of the White House aides who worked on the planning for Monday's ceremony did not know for certain Kavanaugh was the pick until the final hour before the event.
Minutes before Trump took the stage in the ornate White House East Room, the news finally began to leak out.
Seeking to maintain the suspense, Trump kept the guest of honor and his family off stage as he made introductory remarks before announcing the pick: "Tonight it is my honor and privilege to announce that I will nominate Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court."