President Donald Trump on Wednesday added 20 names to his existing list of 25 potential picks to fill a future Supreme Court vacancy, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley. By doing so, he reprised a strategy that many credit with bringing skeptical social conservatives into the fold in 2016 and paving the way for his upset victory over Hillary Clinton.
Calling the appointment of Supreme Court justices “the most important decision a president can make,” Trump cast the decision to release his potential picks up front as an obligation White House hopefuls have to their voters, though he was the first candidate to do so, in 2016.
“Our cherished rights are at risk,” he said from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House of, speaking of the November election. In his blatant play to win over conservatives who may have been alienated throughout his first term in office, Trump asserted Democrats are at the forefront of an “extreme movement” that, if “granted a majority on the Supreme Court, will fundamentally transform America without a single vote of Congress.”
The “radical justices” appointed by a hypothetical Biden administration, Trump claimed, would “erase the Second Amendment, silence political speech and require taxpayers to fund extreme late-term abortion.” They would also, he asserted, “give unelected bureaucrats the power to destroy millions of jobs” and “remove the words ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance” — despite Biden’s never having proposed any of those things.
The rest of Trump’s list includes Bridget Bade, a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron; Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general; Stuart Kyle Duncan, a judge on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Steven Engel, who heads the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice; Noel Francisco, a former solicitor general; James Ho, a judge on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Gregory Katsas, a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals; Barbara Lagoa, a judge on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Christopher Landau, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico; Carlos Muñiz, a justice on the Florida Supreme Court; Martha Pacold, a judge for the Northern District of Illinois; Peter Phipps, a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Sarah Pitlyk, a judge for the Eastern District of Missouri; Allison Jones Rushing, a judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Kate Todd, a deputy White House counsel; and Lawrence VanDyke, a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Cruz (R-Texas), Hawley (R-Mo.) and Cotton (R-Ark.), all of whom were vocal critics of Trump‘s high-profile Supreme Court losses this summer, join one other hardline conservative, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, on Trump’s most recent list.
But while Cruz and Cotton quickly issued statements thanking Trump for the honor of being named to the shortlist, Hawley said that he had declined the offer from the president and White House multiple times.
“He first broached this with me, it’s been, oh, some weeks ago now,” Hawley told POLITICO. “Well, we were talking about something and the Supreme Court came up … and he said, ‘Oh Josh I’d like to put you on the list.’ And I said, ‘Oh no, I’m not interested,’ and I had that same conversation with the White House counsel separately, and then separately with the chief of staff. And the president called me again today and he said I’d really like to put your name on the list, and I said I’m very honored by your confidence but I’m not interested.“
The senator said that he had a heads-up that his name would appear on the list anyway, but that he looked forward to continuing to serve in the Senate.
Trump announced his intention to release a refreshed list over the summer, after the Supreme Court dealt him a series of legal blows on cases pertaining to issues that have historically fired up his base of conservative evangelicals, like abortion, LGBTQ protections and immigration.
But its release comes as the president enters the final two-month stretch of his reelection campaign very much the underdog — though within striking distance — of former Vice President Joe Biden.
The potential nominees unveiled on Wednesday make up the fourth iteration of Trump’s vaunted list, first released in May 2016 when he was only the presumptive Republican nominee, in an unprecedented effort to shore up conservative support. Trump added another 10 names to the original list of 11 in September of that year, an addition that included Neil Gorsuch, who was Trump’s first appointment to the Supreme Court days after he assumed the presidency.
In November 2017, Trump added another five names to the list, from which the White House said he would select all future Supreme Court nominees.
Trump’s efforts to remake the federal judiciary have been a keystone — if a relatively under-the-radar one — of his presidency, and he frequently touts the hundreds of federal judges appointed and confirmed during his tenure, even if he often inflates the total number, as he did again on Wednesday.
But without a vacancy on the high court as there was in 2016, the Supreme Court has been a backburner issue throughout the 2020 campaign, despite several health scares this year alone from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who is 87 and in fragile health, and has become a liberal icon on the court.
The issue picked up new urgency for Trump this summer, however, after a string of high-profile losses in spite of a 5-4 conservative majority on the bench. In several of the decisions, Chief Justice John Roberts, an appointee of President George W. Bush, served as the decisive swing vote while Gorsuch penned the majority opinion in another.
Trump ripped the “politically charged” rulings as “shotgun blasts into the face” of conservatives and vowed to issue his latest list by Sept. 1.
In another tweet, he sought to clearly lay out the stakes for his voters come November. “Based on decisions being rendered now, this list is more important than ever before (Second Amendment, Right to Life, Religious Liberty, etc.),” he wrote.
The pledge divided Trump’s advisers, who split over the summer about whether the president should tighten the vetting process and winnow his list or expand it further.
Trump’s decision to nearly double his existing pool of choices could upset those who favored slashing the original list by as much as half, arguing for a more stringent vetting process, as well as the removal of those with limited records from which to judge the consistency of their judicial philosophy. Those in favor of expanding the list argued that Gorsuch departed from such consistency in his ruling this summer.
“The whole purpose of the list is to give hard-line conservatives a guarantee that we will not be betrayed again,” one Republican close to the White House told POLITICO in July.
But conservatives immediately applauded Trump‘s picks.
“A great list of conservative jurists and accomplished Americans to consider for future vacancies on the Supreme Court,” tweeted Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who would oversee the confirmation process should a vacancy open up while Trump remains president and Republicans control the Senate.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List and a national co-chair of Pro-Life Voices for Trump, said in a statement that the additions “is filled with all-stars.”
“The issue of the Supreme Court continues to highly motivate our base and we are seeing it persuade targeted voters at their doorsteps in presidential and Senate battlegrounds,” she stressed. “It is a central issue in emphasizing that the 2020 election is the most important of our lifetimes and is why SBA List is committed to educating seven million voters across key presidential and Senate battlegrounds.”
The president’s campaign blasted out messages of praise from members of Trump’s gun owners and Catholics advisory boards, as well as the campaign’s legal advisers.
Democrats and progressive groups, meanwhile, held up Trump’s shortlist as their own measure of the stakes in the coming election.
Sharon McGowan, legal director and chief strategy officer for the LGTBQ rights group Lambda Legal, asserted that Trump’s shortlist includes “some of the most anti-LGBTQ activists sitting on the bench today,” calling the list “teeming with individuals who have alarming anti-LGBTQ and anti-civil rights records, which should be disqualifying for any judicial nominee, let alone a nominee for the Supreme Court.”
“If you don’t want Ted Cruz replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, we need to elect @JoeBiden, @KamalaHarris and #FlipTheSenate,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in a tweet.
For his part, Biden has declined to follow in Trump’s footsteps and release his own list of potential Supreme Court nominees. He has promised to appoint a Black woman to the court and has said his campaign is compiling a shortlist of such picks “who are qualified and have the experience to be on the court,” but would not release their names “until we go further down the line in vetting them.”
Trump slammed that decision on Wednesday, calling on Biden to release a list of potential Supreme Court picks and musing that Biden’s refusal to do so was “perhaps because he knows the names are so extremely far left that they could never withstand public scrutiny or receive acceptance.”
Biden, Trump said, “must release a list of justices for people to properly make a decision as to how they will vote.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.