By Niall Stanage
President Trump put feverish speculation to an end on Monday night when he nominated Brett Kavanaugh, a 53-year-old appellate judge from the District of Columbia Circuit, to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Here are five big takeaways from the announcement.
Trump was at his most conventional
The president takes pleasure in transgressing norms in other areas of political debate, but the Supreme Court seems to bring out his most conventional side.
Last year’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia showed Trump playing by the established rules with uncommon discipline.
The same was true on Monday, when he nominated Kavanaugh with a speech that took in all the usual touchstones and never veered off script. It also included admiring comments from the purportedly anti-elitist Trump about his nominee’s educational and teaching background, which encompasses Yale, Harvard and Georgetown.
The pick itself is an orthodox, if conservative, one. Kavanaugh is well-regarded in D.C. legal circles. He worked for the administration of President George W. Bush and was on the list of 25 potential candidates drawn up by the conservative Federalist Society in conjunction with the White House.
Even Republicans who are often deeply critical of Trump praised the choice.
“A conservative can be a fierce critic of Trump on many key matters and still acknowledge he made an outstanding [Supreme Court] pick,” tweeted one such critic, Peter Wehner, a veteran of several past GOP administrations.
“The Rule of Law is our nation’s proud heritage,” Trump said at the White House. “It is the cornerstone of our freedom. It is what guarantees equal justice.”
This was a very different face of the president who, in the first weeks of his presidency, had lambasted the “so-called judge” who blocked the first iteration of his travel ban.
Battle lines are drawn, but what about red-state Dems?
There was never any real doubt that, whomever Trump picked, it would please his base and outrage his liberal critics.
Some left-of-center organizations had announced plans for protest rallies before Trump announced his choice, seeing all the shortlisted candidates as hard-line conservatives who could threaten abortion rights and other hot-button issues.
Several potential 2020 presidential contenders spoke at a rally outside the Supreme Court, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
The political calculus here is clear: all the political incentives for 2020 Democratic contenders favor opposing Trump’s pick as fiercely as possible, since anything less would likely be treated with suspicion by the party’s grass-roots supporters.
The dynamics are much more complicated for Senate Democrats running for reelection in states Trump won by significant margins in 2016.
Three of those senators – Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin – voted to confirm Gorsuch last year. All three were invited to the White House ceremony; all three declined.
Their public statements since Kavanaugh was announced have been circumspect. Donnelly said that he would “carefully review and consider” his record. Heitkamp and Manchin struck a similar tone.
How those senators vote could be vital for their own chances for reelection.
Given the razor-thin math in the Senate – Republicans have a 50-49 advantage in the absence of the seriously ill Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) – they could also be crucial to whether Kavanaugh is ultimately confirmed.
A rebuke to McConnell
Tensions between Trump loyalists and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are rarely far from the surface.
They emerged again here. Despite Kavanaugh’s establishment credentials, McConnell was reported to have advocated for two other figures on Trump’s shortlist, Thomas Hardiman and Raymond Kethledge, arguing that they could be easily and promptly confirmed by the Senate.
His intervention roiled some of those close to Trump, who believed Kavanaugh had almost had his hands on the prize when McConnell intervened. From the same quarters, there was satisfaction that the president in the end bucked the majority leader’s advice.
It’s hardly a serious setback for McConnell – Kavanaugh’s record contains nothing to discomfort him – but it does again expose the difficult wrinkles in the Trump-McConnell relationship.
Beware the long paper trail
Kavanaugh’s career, encompassing a stretch working for Kenneth Starr during the Monica Lewinsky scandal as well as his service in the Bush White House, will have generated a lengthy paper trail.
This was one of the reasons why McConnell is understood to have made the case for other candidates – with less documentation marking their every move, there could be less chance for some unexpected revelation upending the process.
Democrats will scour Kavanaugh’s record looking for issues that might be able to fire up their own base – and also ratchet up the pressure on the Republicans most likely to vote against Kavanaugh: Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and perhaps even Rand Paul (Ky.).
The president and his Republican colleagues want Kavanaugh confirmed as fast as possible, knowing that November’s midterm elections pose serious challenges.
Democrats will dig in, in the hope of frustrating that effort.
Trump kept a secret
The president is often blasted for a lack of discipline, a critique that is voiced – at least in private – by many members of his own party.
There was no evidence of that when it came to the Kavanaugh nomination.
The normally loquacious president said little in the days leading up to making his pick, beyond positive generalizations about his shortlist. His leak-prone administration offered no clues.
In the end, the first reports that Kavanaugh had been chosen came only minutes before the judge joined the president in the East Room of the White House.
It was an unusual display of restraint – and, in the eyes of many in the GOP, a welcome one.
By Niall Stanage