A “view” from the East Room: The Brett Kavanaugh story
on Jul 10, 2018 at 8:16 am
I’m in an Uber on my way to the White House for President Donald Trump’s announcement of his Supreme Court nominee when we hit a time warp of sorts.
A few blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue just west of the White House are being transformed to the era of President Ronald Reagan by film crews for “Wonder Woman 1984,” the sequel to the hit 2017 movie about the female superhero that has been filming around the city the last few weeks. Since much of Washington looks like it could still be in the 1980s, the crew does not appear to have had to make too many dramatic period touches for this outdoor scene.
Down the street, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a different set of writers and producers are putting the final touches on their own script that will aim to evoke the Reagan era.
When I arrive at the White House press quarters, there is a crew from a TV station in South Bend, Ind., where finalist Judge Amy Coney Barrett lives and maintains her 7th Circuit chambers. Cable news outlets are reporting that Barrett is at home this evening, so it appears this crew will not be getting a big local story. One technician mentions that Judge Thomas Hardiman of the 3rd Circuit, another of the four finalists (and one of the two “final” finalists), attended the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, so that would be a story for that crew. But they are in for disappointment.
Still, with just under an hour to go before the announcement, the Trump administration has again kept the president’s Supreme Court choice remarkably under wraps. There is a slight buzz among a few White House reporters that Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will get the nod, but there are also well-known network TV news correspondents who are pressing any Trump administration official who walks by with questions such as, “So, is it Hardiman or Kavanaugh?”
At about 8:35 p.m., White House press office staff members wrangle the reporters for the short walk to the East Room. Last year, for the unveiling of Neil Gorsuch, we went up to the North Portico and through one of the main doors to the White House. This time, we are led on a walk through the building’s service level. If you ever wondered if there is a box crusher on the grounds of the White House, the answer is yes, and it is parked right outside the East Room.
Inside the ornate East Room, most of the president’s guests are seated as reporters enter at about 8:45 p.m. To the right of the small stage, in the front row, is Rudolph Giuliani, one of the president’s private lawyers in investigative matters that have gotten almost as much air time today as the Supreme Court vacancy.
Next to Giuliani, with one empty chair between them, is Leonard Leo, who is on leave from the Federalist Society to serve as Trump’s special adviser on the nomination.
In the front row on the other side of the stage is John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation, who like Leo is partly responsible for the president’s list of 25 prospective nominees. Next to him is Maureen Scalia, the wife of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. And next to her is Edwin Meese, the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus at Heritage, and a former adviser to and attorney general under Reagan. And next to him is a Roman Catholic priest who will be introduced to all a little later.
Legal luminaries dot the room. On one side is Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who won the case he argued before the Supreme Court in the just-ended term. In the middle of the room is Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And on another side is Greg Katsas, the former deputy White House counsel who helped usher Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing. Katsas is now on the D.C. Circuit. Top White House aides to the president abound, as well, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, Marc Short, the director of legislative affairs and White House Counsel Don McGahn, who is said to have championed the nominee who will be introduced shortly.
Just behind my section of press seats, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway greets Boris Epshteyn, the former White House communications aide to Trump who is now the chief political analyst for Sinclair Broadcast Group TV stations.
Vice President Mike Pence, who is said to have favored Barrett, his fellow Indianan, enters the room, trailed by a quite a few Republican senators, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who was said to be under consideration at one point.
We don’t see any Democratic lawmakers or progressives of any kind. The three Democratic senators who voted for Gorsuch’s nomination—Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia—were said to have declined an invitation from the president to be here tonight. And last year, I bumped into Neal Katyal, the former acting U.S. solicitor general under President Barack Obama, on the White House grounds before the unveiling of Gorsuch. He supported that nomination and later introduced Gorsuch at his Senate confirmation hearing. There is no immediate sign of anyone like that here tonight.
First lady Melania Trump enters the room just before 9 p.m., when the TV correspondents, most standing on chairs, loudly deliver their live opens to their cameras, a spectacle the guests gathered in the East Room seem to find amusing.
Trump enters the room from the long center hallway and soon is thanking Justice Anthony Kennedy for his four decades of public service. A few heads look around the room, but Kennedy is not here tonight. (We think he is still in Salzburg, Austria, where just last Friday he was scheduled to have a reception with students participating a summer law school program.)
The president mentions that he chose Gorsuch to replace “the late, great Justice Antonin Scalia,” and he recognizes Maureen Scalia. He says that both Kennedy and Scalia “were appointed by a president who understood that the best defense of our liberty—and a judicial branch immune from political prejudice—were judges that apply the Constitution as written. That president happened to be Ronald Reagan.”
“In keeping with President Reagan’s legacy, I do not ask about a nominee’s personal opinions,” Trump says. “What matters is not a judge’s political views but whether they can set aside those views to do what the law and the Constitution require.”
And with that, he announces Kavanaugh as his choice. And the doors behind Trump on his right open and the new nominee enters with his wife, Ashley, and his daughters Margaret and Liza. There is sustained applause from the crowd.
Trump touts Kavanaugh’s legal credentials and community service before turning the microphone over to him.
Kavanaugh, who argued and lost one case before the Supreme Court, is perhaps reticent to adjust the microphone, which seems to have been set for the taller Trump. (There is a sign on the lectern in the Supreme Court advising lawyers not to touch the microphones, but they are permitted to crank the whole lectern up or down if they wish.) The result is that the microphone is aimed at Kavanaugh’s forehead as he speaks.
Kavanaugh points out his parents (Everett and Martha Kavanaugh), who are in the front row directly in front of him, next to Melania Trump.
“The president introduced me tonight as Judge Kavanaugh, but to me, that title will always belong to my mom,” the nominee says after noting that his mother had taught in the public schools in Washington before going to law school and becoming a prosecutor. (She later became a Maryland state judge.)
Kavanaugh says his father went to night law school while working full time. “He has an unparalleled work ethic and has passed down to me his passion for playing, and watching, sports,” he says.
He notes that for the past 11 years, he has taught “hundreds of students, primarily at Harvard Law School. I teach that the Constitution’s separation of powers protects individual liberty, and I remain grateful to the dean who hired me, Justice Elena Kagan.”
One or two audience members gasp slightly at the mention of the liberal justice.
“I am part of the vibrant Catholic community in the D.C. area,” Kavanaugh continues. “The members of that community disagree about many things, but we are united by a commitment to serve. Father John Enzler is here. Forty years ago, I was an altar boy for Father John. These days, I help him serve meals to the homeless at Catholic Charities.”
Kavanaugh refers to his “spirited daughters,” with Margaret loving sports and reading, while Liza also likes sports, “and she loves to talk.” He reaches out and gives her a hand slap.
He notes that he met his wife, Ashley, when both worked at the White House in 2001. (Ashley was a personal secretary to President George W. Bush while her husband was a counsel and later staff secretary to the president.)
“Our first date was on September 10, 2001. The next morning I was a few steps behind her as the Secret Service shouted out to all of us to sprint out the front gates of the White House, because there was an inbound plane,” he says, in a somewhat oblique reference to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 that year.
He closes by saying that he will begin his courtesy calls to U.S. senators on Tuesday morning.
“I will tell each senator that I revere the Constitution,” Kavanaugh says. “I believe that an independent judiciary is the crown jewel of our constitutional republic.”
With that, Trump leads Kavanaugh, his wife, and the two daughters down the center hallway.
In the coming days, advocates on both sides of the nomination will seek, in their own ways, to evoke a version of Washington from the 1980s. Kavanaugh’s supporters will fondly look to the days when Scalia, another sharp mind from the D.C. Circuit, could convince senators on both side of the aisle to overwhelmingly support his confirmation despite his deeply conservative views. (Scalia was confirmed 98-0 in 1986.)
Kavanaugh’s opponents will hark back to 1987, when another high court nominee from the D.C. Circuit, Judge Robert Bork, was painted as holding extreme and dangerous conservative views, and his nomination went down to defeat.
Pulling off a sequel like that would seem to require all the plot twists, special effects and movie magic that Kavanaugh’s antagonists can muster.