In the dozen days since Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, there had been much speculation, jockeying and open infighting among conservatives over whom President Donald Trump should pick to succeed Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court.
But on Monday night in the White House, where the president would deliver his announcement in primetime to a national audience, there was little sign of that drama.
Trump nominated federal appeals court judge Brett Kavanaugh and lavished praise on his nominee, before a buzzing, hobnobbing throng of Trump administration officials, Republican lawmakers and conservative insiders—including the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani—packed in the White House’s East Room.
Adding to Monday night’s anticipation, the president largely kept his selection of Kavanaugh hidden from the media until moments before the announcement. An unusual Monday D.C. Circuit opinion—the court typically issues decisions on Tuesdays—and the sighting of a car leaving the Washington federal courthouse offered some clues.
The White House was so keen on keeping suspense that the social secretary would send out invitations to Kavanaugh’s friends and former clerks only hours before Monday’s event, scheduled for 9 p.m.
“The only thing I can say about that is that I was overjoyed to receive an invitation from the White House late this afternoon, and I very much hoped that it was to be here to see Judge Kavanaugh be nominated,” Travis Lenkner, a former Kavanaugh and Kennedy clerk and managing partner of the Chicago-based plaintiffs firm Keller Lenkner, said Monday night.
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher appellate star Helgi Walker, who has been a friend of Kavanaugh’s for over two decades, had been scheduled to be on a television program during the hour of the announcement to analyze the nomination—that is, until an invite came her way.
“The White House did a fantastic job of maintaining secrecy. Nobody knew anything for sure. Some invitations went out for the ceremony very late in the day, but they didn’t indicate who the nominee was going to be,” Walker said. The nomination roll-out, she added, was “very closely-held and very deftly-handled.”
The Scene Inside the East Room
If the invitations did not reveal Trump’s choice, the guests inside the East Room made it obvious: Kavanaugh’s parents were spotted in the East Room audience just before Trump’s announcement Monday night. A colleague of Kavanaugh’s—Judge Gregory Katsas of the D.C. Circuit, and also Trump’s former deputy White House counsel—was seated on one side of the East Room, in front of a fleet of former Kavanaugh clerks who have spent the last few days publicly going to bat for their former boss.
And for all the chatter of Trump seeking an unconventional, beltway outsider for the high court bench, the East Room was still teeming with insiders and establishment Republicans.
The Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo, who along with White House Counsel Donald McGahn helped develop Trump’s shortlist of Supreme Court nominees, had a front-row seat, next to Walker, for Monday night’s affair.
The Heritage Foundation’s Ed Meese and John Malcolm were both in the room. Meese, who was President Ronald Reagan’s U.S. attorney general when Reagan nominated Kennedy to the bench, received a shoutout from the president during his unveiling remarks Monday. C. Boyden Gray, the former George H.W. Bush White House counsel, was also a guest last night.
And there was the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, seated beside Leo. A cadre of U.S. Justice Department officials were seated just two rows behind: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco and DOJ Office of Legal Policy head Beth Williams, the department’s point person on judicial nominees.
Francisco, exiting the room, said he was “very excited” about the new nominee, while Republican senators who attended shook Rosenstein’s hand. Giuliani, too, shook hands with Rosenstein, a moment that would be captured in a social media photo later Monday. Rosenstein oversees the special counsel’s probe of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Spotted in the East Room after SCOTUS nominee announcement: Rudy Giuliani and Rod Rosenstein shaking hands pic.twitter.com/lfDjtUOAP2
— Arlette Saenz (@ArletteSaenz) July 10, 2018
Most attendees in the room—which included other conservative lawyers like Cooper & Kirk’s Chuck Cooper and the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Ed Whelan—filed into a reception in the White House’s State Floor shortly after the announcement.
‘All Hands on Deck’ Confirmation Fight
After the event, chatter mostly surrounded Kavanaugh’s path to Senate confirmation.
Both White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short indicated that they expected Kavanaugh to be confirmed by October, the start of the Supreme Court term.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who had lobbied for the president to select Sen. Mike Lee, the Utah Republican, was in the East Room, and he praised Kavanaugh as “one of the most respected federal judges in the country.” Lee, also at the White House for the announcement, said he was “terrific, and I think he’s a great choice.”
“Nice comments tonight, huh?” former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl remarked, as he exited the White House on Monday night, opting to leave instead of joining a post-announcement reception on the State Floor.
The White House had named Kyl, a longtime member of the Senate Judiciary committee, earlier on Monday as its “sherpa,” its choice of seasoned political veteran designated to introduce nominees to senators and guide them through Capitol Hill ahead of confirmation hearings.
Kyl, who has worked in Covington & Burling’s lobbying shop since he retired from Capitol Hill politics in 2013, said he first learned of his role over the phone while he was in Arizona this weekend, “when all the conversations took place.” He said he didn’t talk to Kavanaugh himself Monday, but he spoke with members of the White House Counsel’s office throughout the day.
From now on it’s “all hands on deck,” Kyl said. His work and Kavanaugh’s—meeting with lawmakers and preparing for a testy confirmation fight ahead—begins Tuesday.