By Catherine Lucey, Zeke Miller, Ken Thomas
BERKELEY HEIGHTS, N.J. (AP) — Savoring the suspense, President Donald Trump is weighing his choice on a replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy from the seclusion of his golf club in New Jersey. And he's consulting with the vice president and others as he zeroes in on a nominee.
On Saturday morning, Trump tweeted: "Big decision will soon be made on our next Justice of the Supreme Court!"
Big decision will soon be made on our next Justice of the Supreme Court!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 7, 2018
The president, who is planning a Monday night announcement from the East Room in the White House, has told reporters that he was focused on four people and "of the four people I have it down to three or two." He had dinner Friday night with Vice President Mike Pence, who has also been meeting with the finalists.
The president's top contenders include federal appeals court judges Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Raymond Kethledge, with federal appeals court judge Thomas Hardiman still considered in the mix. As part of the rollout process, the White House has been preparing information packages on all four, said two people familiar with the process who were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Starting from a list of 25 names vetted by conservative groups, Trump has also given serious consideration to federal appeals court judges Amul Thapar and Joan Larsen, and it's possible the White House will prepare materials for more people.
The president enjoyed the suspenseful process leading up to his announcement last year that he was nominating Neil Gorsuch for the high court and is hoping to keep the guessing game going until he announces his pick Monday in prime time.
The president and White House officials involved in the process have fielded calls and messages and have been on the receiving end of public pleas and op-eds for or against specific candidates ever since Kennedy announced on June 27 that he would retire this summer.
As Trump's list tightened, there was some internal concern that the president's options could be narrowed by the public outcry — particularly what had appeared to be mounting conservative reservations about Kavanaugh. But in recent days the White House has seen the pressure ebb, as Kavanaugh's defenders — most recently Alberto Gonzales, who served as attorney general under President George W. Bush — have provided balance.
Now, advisers believe, all of Trump's finalists can earn the support of the president's party, and ultimately confirmation. All he has to do is make up his mind.
"I am interviewing some extraordinarily talented and brilliant people and I'm very, very happy with them and we will pick somebody who will be outstanding, hopefully for many years to come," Trump said Thursday.
Pence met in person with Kethledge and Barrett while he was vacationing in Indiana earlier this week and met with Kavanaugh at the Naval Observatory on Wednesday, said a person familiar with the process who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. Pence has also spoken to Republican senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, about the process.
As Trump closes in on his second court pick in two years — a nominee who could tip the balance toward conservatives and revisit landmark rulings on abortion access, gay marriage and other issues — momentum is also growing among GOP supporters and detractors of the top contenders.
Aware that judicial picks are key voting issues, Trump has stressed that he wants a justice who will be a strict constitutionalist. Viewed warily by his party's conservative base, Trump has been keen to note that all of his picks have been vetted by conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. He also prioritizes academic credentials and likes to have a breadth of legal opinions to gauge how the judge applies the law.
Conservatives and some libertarian-leaning Republicans, including Paul, have raised concerns about Kavanaugh, warning he could disappoint Republicans if his past decisions are a guide. Paul and Cruz are supporting fellow Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who is not said to be under serious consideration by the White House but is the only lawmaker Trump has considered for the position.
With the Senate narrowly divided, 51-49, in favor of Republicans, Trump's announcement will set off a contentious confirmation process as Republicans seek to shift the court to the right and Democrats strive to block that effort. And with the ailing Arizona Sen. John McCain away from Washington, any GOP defections could begin to imperil a nominee.
Kavanaugh's allies have begun pushing back, reaching out to influential Republicans to ward off potential criticisms, according to one conservative who was the recipient of such outreach and spoke on condition of anonymity Thursday to discuss the situation.
In The Washington Post, Gonzales pushed back against the criticism of Kavanaugh's past decisions, as well as the suggestion that his time in Bush's administration as staff secretary in the executive office marks him as an "establishment" Republican.
"I remind my Republican friends that Justice Neil M. Gorsuch also served in the George W. Bush administration, yet I do not recall conservatives using that as an excuse to question his commitment to the rule of law or to conservative principles," Gonzales wrote.
Some conservatives have pointed to Kethledge as a potential justice in the mold of Gorsuch. Both Kethledge and Gorsuch once served Kennedy as law clerks, as did Kavanaugh. Kethledge, a Michigan Law graduate, would add academic diversity to a court steeped in the Ivy League.
Barrett's profile rose rapidly last year with conservative groups after her confirmation hearing featured questioning from Democrats over how her Roman Catholic faith would affect her decisions. A former law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia and a longtime Notre Dame Law School professor, she serves on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Hardiman was a runner-up for the vacancy ultimately filled by Gorsuch. He has a personal connection to the president, having served with Trump's sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.