There’s less than an hour to go before President Donald Trump will announce his Supreme Court pick, and a few reporters have stepped out of the White House press briefing room into the cool but not cold air of this last night of January.
If this event were scheduled for daylight hours, it could have been held in the Rose Garden, as Tuesday’s temperatures weren’t much cooler than the day last March when President Obama announced Merrick Garland as his pick to fill the seat left vacant by the February 13 death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
At about 7:30 p.m., a well-dressed group of professionals are making their way from the West Wing, past the press offices on their way to the East Room, where tonight’s ceremony will be held. As a couple of reporters ask who the nominee will be (it’s pretty clear by this time that it will be Neil Gorsuch over Thomas Hardiman, but not definitive), the group of guests remains tight-lipped.
And then I notice a decidedly non-Republican face: Neal Katyal, a former acting U.S. solicitor general under President Obama and now a Georgetown Law professor and Supreme Court litigator at Hogan Lovells. Katyal will explain why he is supporting Gorsuch in a New York Times op-ed that will post shortly after the event.
When reporters are escorted to the East Room just minutes before the announcement, we don’t find many other progressive or Democratic faces. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who led the effort to deny a vote to Garland, is here, as is House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
Most, if not all, Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are here, led by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the chairman who will hope to launch confirmation hearings in time for Gorsuch to join the court for its April argument sitting. Other GOP members present include Orrin Hatch of Utah, John Cornyn of Texas, Ted Cruz of Texas, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Michael Lee of Utah.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the nominee for attorney general whose committee vote was delayed today by Democrats, does not appear to be here.
Some other Republican senators not on the Judiciary Committee are here, including Rob Portman of Ohio, Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Cory Gardner of Gorsuch’s state, Colorado. (We don’t see Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado here tonight.)
In the front row, Vice President Mike Pence and Karen Pence are seated with Maureen Scalia, the wife of the late justice. She is accompanied by her son Paul—the Rev. Paul Scalia—the Roman Catholic priest who so eloquently led the funeral service and other prayers for his father. Rudy Giuliani is a row or two behind them.
The president’s adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, are seated to the left of the stage. Standing behind them are White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steven Bannon, and press secretary Sean Spicer. Priebus will chew gum and keep his arms folded throughout most of the event. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, meanwhile, has scored a seat in the front row.
The East Room is packed with about two-thirds guests and one-third reporters. The guests get a lesson in how the TV news sausage is made as top network White House correspondents stand on their chairs so their networks’ cameras can shoot their live introductions. One network reporter loudly plays up the theme that there is still a finalist drama between Gorsuch and Hardiman, which elicits smirks from the guests who seem to be in the know about the president’s choice.
We think back to the Garland announcement in the Rose Garden last March, when White House staffers were quietly invited to fill a few of the chairs that remained empty minutes before the event began. And we consider how unthinkable it would be today to hold such an event where it was held 31 years ago, when President Ronald Reagan took to the cramped White House press briefing room to announce the retirement of Chief Justice Warren Burger, the elevation of Justice William Rehnquist to the chief’s chair, and the nomination of Scalia to the vacancy created by that move.
At the appointed hour, Trump is announced and takes the lectern by himself to proclaim that he is keeping a campaign promise to “find the best judge in the country for the Supreme Court.”
“Today I am keeping another promise to the American people by nominating Judge Neil Gorsuch of the United States Supreme Court to be of the United States Supreme Court,” Trump says, letting his mangled sentence pass without attempting to correct it.
“And I would like to ask Judge Gorsuch and his wonderful wife, Louise, to please step forward,” Trump says. “Please, Louise, Judge. Here they come. Here they come.”
As the Gorsuches emerge, the president says, “So, was that a surprise? Was it?”
Well, not a huge one at this point. Despite all the chatter about Judge Hardiman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit also coming to Washington, perhaps for some sort of “Celebrity Apprentice”-style finale to the nomination drama, there is no sign of the 3rd Circuit judge tonight and Trump does not address the theme.
“Judge Gorsuch has outstanding legal skills, a brilliant mind, tremendous discipline and has earned bipartisan support,” Trump says.
He somewhat abruptly switches focus to recognize Maureen Scalia, calling her “a woman loved by her husband and deeply respected by all. I am so happy she’s with us. Where is Maureen? Please stand up.”
“She is really the ultimate representative of the late, great Justice Antonin Scalia, whose image and genius was in my mind throughout the decision-making process,” the president says.
Trump just as quickly switches back to “the nominee,” lauding Gorsuch’s academic credentials and his writings, which the president says he studied closely. After a few more awkward turns of syntax, such as “brilliance being assured, I studied every aspect of his life,” Trump turns the lectern over to Gorsuch, while he turns to Louise Gorsuch and gives her an air kiss.
The nominee gives an equally short, but more well-spoken statement, about “standing here in a house of history, and acutely aware of my own imperfections,” and noting the “towering judges that have served in this particular seat of the Supreme Court, including Antonin Scalia and Robert Jackson.”
He notes also his work for Justice Byron White, “the last Coloradan to serve on the Supreme Court, and the only justice to lead the N.F.L. in rushing.” White retired from the court in 1993 just before Gorsuch began his clerkship. In a tradition at the court, White “lent out” Gorsuch to an active chambers—that of Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Gorsuch continues in a tone of judicial and personal modesty and humility. “I respect, too, the fact that in our legal order it is for Congress and not the courts to write new laws,” Gorsuch says. “It is the role of judges to apply, not alter, the work of the people’s representatives. A judge who likes every outcome he reaches is very likely a bad judge … stretching for results he prefers rather than those the law demands.”
When Gorsuch finishes, he turns to Trump behind him and gives the president a vigorous handshake with an intense look on his face. The president tugs the nominee’s arm toward him for an extra shake before he leads the Gorsuches off the dais, stage left, and out of the East Room.
The whole announcement lasts well less than a half-hour. The TV correspondents are quickly back on their chairs and talking to their cameras, with one saying “we were expecting a little more of a reality-TV rollout.”
Most of the guests seem to be in no rush to depart this “house of history.”
Some senators, such as Cruz and Graham, who both lost the Republican nomination race to Trump, gravitate toward reporters and cameras to praise the choice, as does Hatch. Others find themselves trapped on the south side of the room, unable to exit the same door the president and the Gorsuches used. They realize they have to make their way through the throng of reporters to leave. McConnell looks like he is in no mood to talk to reporters tonight, and his security detail helps clear a path through the crowd and the now-jumbled chairs to get him out.
Edwin Meese III, President Reagan’s attorney general and now a distinguished fellow emeritus at the Heritage Foundation, which supplied some of the names on Trump’s list of prospective Court nominees, is using two canes and carefully moves through the exiting mass. Nearby is Leonard Leo, the executive vice president of the Federalist Society, which also provided names for the Trump list.
When a group of reporters is ready to be escorted back to the press room, we’re told by Secret Service agents that we can’t exit through the first floor door by which we had entered because “POTUS is on the floor.” So we’re led downstairs to the ground floor, where we chance upon the Trump boys chatting in the hallway with Hatch. Donald Jr., who has already removed his tie, asks Hatch, “Have you met my brother Eric?”
It seems the Trumps have the full run of the White House now. And although much of the president’s first couple of weeks in office has been chaotic, to say the least, the Supreme Court announcement has been carried out in prime time with a fair amount of drama and without any glitches.