White House sets up SCOTUS war room without its former maestro

The conservative world is firing up its well-oiled machinery to fight its third Supreme Court battle in four years. But at the White House, a fresh crop of top aides is taking the reins.

a man wearing a suit and tie looking at the camera: White House Counsel Pat Cipollone waits for the beginning of a cabinet meeting in the East Room of the White House on May 19, 2020.

© Alex Wong/Getty Images
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone waits for the beginning of a cabinet meeting in the East Room of the White House on May 19, 2020.

Gone is the man who shepherded through President Donald Trump’s first two Supreme Court picks — former White House counsel Don McGahn. In his place are top White House aides new to the very particular process of nominating a Supreme Court justice. Both McGahn’s replacement, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, and chief of staff Mark Meadows were not around the last two times Trump placed a justice on the high court.

White House aides met Monday to plot their path to confirming a replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg before the end of Trump’s first term in January. On their list: Assemble an internal war room and prepare a fierce counteroffensive against Democratic complaints, even as they try to simultaneously secure enough votes in a Republican-controlled Senate where two Republican members have already indicated opposition.

Aides and advisers know they must act quickly with the presidential election less than 50 days away. Trump is expected to announce his pick as early as Friday, ahead of the first presidential debate on Tuesday, Sept. 29.

“Time is your enemy,” said one Republican familiar with the judicial selection process. “That is the No. 1 lesson from [Brett] Kavanaugh.”

Trump and his team have zeroed in two female judges as the top candidates — Amy Coney Barrett, seen as the frontrunner, and Barbara Lagoa — but the president plans to interview each of the five candidates he is considering, said one White House official. He will want to interview the top candidate in-person, said a second White House aide.

On Monday, Trump personally met with Barrett in the Oval Office shortly before he left for a campaign rally in Ohio. And Trump told reporters he had spoken to other potential candidates over the past two days.

Barrett already has a history with Trump. The president interviewed her roughly two years ago before settling on nominating eventual Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The meeting was not held under ideal circumstances — Barrett had pink eye and wore sunglasses to the interview, leading to some awkwardness, according to four people familiar with the process.

But Barrett has the strong backing of several influential anti-abortion groups, and her record excites the Trump base of evangelicals and Catholic voters, whose support for the president has dwindled during the 2020 presidential race.

The president is not asking candidates if they will overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case establishing abortion rights, said one White House aide, who called the focus on the landmark abortion rights ruling “over-hyped.” Democrats see the fate of Roe v. Wade — as well as a crop of new abortion restriction laws —

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