WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump likes to go with his gut. But when it came to picking a Supreme Court nominee, he forced himself to go by the list.
Trump's campaign promise to pick from a list of 21 prominent conservative judges became the driving force behind the selection process that culminated Tuesday in the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, a federal appeals court judge. The list was crucial in solidifying support from evangelicals and calming broader worries that the unorthodox politician might go rogue on a lifetime appointment.
As a result, the decision-making was perhaps more orderly and ordinary than typical for the improvisational businessman and ex-reality TV star, according to a half-dozen White House aides and associates. They spoke on condition of anonymity about the search because they were not authorized to publicly discuss private deliberations.
Trump, at times, chafed under the restraints; at one point he flirted with searching for other options. He decided against his vice president's initial choice. And, along with jurisprudence and intellect, Trump factored in a qualification he applies to many of his personnel decisions.
The young, clean-cut Gorsuch just looked the part, Trump told an associate.
He's "perfect in just about every way," Trump said Tuesday night, during the prime-time introduction of Gorsuch at the White House.
The moment was a year in the making.
Justice Antonin Scalia died last February, creating an unexpected opening on the nine-member court. Weeks later, Trump met with several prominent conservatives, including Heritage Foundation head Jim DeMint, at the offices of the Jones Day law firm in Washington. The group decided the conservative think tank would suggest a list of possible judges to the campaign staff, said John Malcolm, director of the Heritage Foundation's Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.
Malcolm published the suggested list shortly afterward. Trump, in an unprecedented move for a presumptive nominee, culled his own list from those names, made it public and pledged to choose one of them. Scalia's seat was being held open by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who refused to hold a hearing on President Barack Obama's nominee, federal appeals court Judge Merrick Garland.
Eleven more names, including Gorsuch's, were added weeks later.
Trump said he would keep his promise and even urged Republicans "who don't like me" in the race against Democrat Hillary Clinton to come home if for no other reason than to put a conservative on the court.
"I believe that was a turning point on the campaign," said Ralph Reed, the founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. "I believe it solidified his standing among evangelicals and other social conservatives. I think it was essential to him strengthening his position among Republican voters, which was weaker at that point than for a traditional, more conventional nominee."
Along the way, Trump told those close to him he understood the importance of a decision that could reshape the nation's highest court for decades, as well as his own legacy.
Trump, who spent little time considering the Supreme Court before the campaign beyond criticizing decisions he did not like, became interested in the late Scalia and his career, aides said. He repeatedly told audience he would find a justice in "the mold of Scalia."
Trump began discussing his decision with close associates and family members over the winter holidays at his Florida resort and began again in earnest after the first of the year. While he was satisfied with the names he'd put out there, he at times suggested he was willing to veer off the list, and met with Andrew Napolitano, a former judge turned Fox News legal analyst, to discuss the decision. Trump ultimately returned to a narrower focus, mindful that breaking the promise would make him appear to be just another Washington politician going back on his word.
Trump interviewed four finalists: Gorsuch; Thomas Hardiman, who sits on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals; 11th Circuit Court Judge Bill Pryor; and Amul Thapar, a federal district judge in Kentucky.
The candidates also interviewed with White House counsel Don McGahn, Vice President Mike Pence, chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon. Pence had initially favored Pryor, while Bannon pushed for Gorsuch, according to two people familiar with the process. A spokesman for Pence did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Associates close to Trump say the president took the interview process seriously, discussing the finalists' judicial philosophies.
"He was engaged and very mindful of the awesome responsibility the president has in making these decisions," said Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society's executive vice president, who advised Trump on his pick, reprising a role he played for George W. Bush. "At one point he said he wants to 'get this right.' He took this very, very seriously and he wanted a process."
Lemire reported from New York.
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