President Trump interviewed four candidates Monday in his search for the next Supreme Court nominee, with two federal appeals court judges emerging as leading contenders for the nomination that could change the complexion of the high court for decades to come.
The White House was giving few details on the candidates while pressing to meet an extraordinarily ambitious deadline to produce a nominee by Monday.
“I had a very, very interesting morning,” Mr. Trump said after meeting with the candidates at the White House for about 45 minutes each. He called the contenders “really incredible people in so many different ways.”
Mr. Trump said he plans to meet with two or three more prospective nominees this week before announcing his decision, his second Supreme Court nomination in less than 18 months.
The president and his team are moving rapidly to find a replacement for Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the longtime moderate swing vote who announced his retirement last week and provided Mr. Trump with a rare opportunity to move the high court firmly under conservatives’ control. With Justice Kennedy leaving, the court now has two solid contingents of four liberal and four conservative justices. The next justice could be a critical vote on such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, federal powers and government regulation.
Judges Amy Coney Barrett, 46, and Brett Kavanaugh, 53, are at the top of the president’s list of 25 possible nominees, CBS News reported. The White House wouldn’t comment on the report; Mr. Trump said last weekend that he narrowed his choice to about five candidates, including two women.
Judge Barrett was one of the four candidates interviewed by Mr. Trump Monday, Bloomberg reported.
Judge Kavanaugh has served for the past 12 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which hears some of the most high-profile cases in the nation. He is a former clerk to Justice Kennedy and is a graduate of Yale Law School.
He gained prominence when he led the Whitewater independent counsel’s inquiry into the death of Clinton White House counsel Vince Foster, and later wrote much of the Starr Report, which detailed President Clinton’s sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky.
Judge Barrett serves on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and was a law professor at her alma mater Notre Dame Law School before Mr. Trump nominated her to the appeals court. She has served on the bench for eight months.
“Either one of them would be a good choice,” said Steven Aden, general counsel for Americans United for Life. “Both of them are highly qualified.”
With Republicans holding just a two-seat majority in the Senate, the nomination of Judge Barrett also would present an intriguing dilemma for Democrats.
The mother of seven hails from Indiana, home of Sen. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat who is up for re-election this year in a state that Mr. Trump won easily in 2016. Mr. Donnelly voted for Judge Barrett’s confirmation to the circuit court.
Judge Barrett “would enable the president to break the ivy-covered ceiling,” Mr. Aden told The Washington Times. “She’s not from Yale or Harvard. I think that would be attractive to the president. She’s from the Rust Belt. In our view, she is the most highly qualified woman on the short list.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would not identify the four candidates who met with the president Monday. She said only that Mr. Trump “is looking for individuals who have the right intellect, the right temperament, and that will uphold the Constitution.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said anyone chosen by Mr. Trump would be “virtually certain” to favor overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that struck down state laws banning abortion. In a New York Times op-ed, Mr. Schumer urged voters to call on their senators to block “an ideological nominee” and to oppose anyone from Mr. Trump’s list.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, predicted Monday that Mr. Trump’s eventual nominee will win confirmation in a close vote after an intensely heated battle.
“I’m confident the choice will be confirmed,” he said at an event in Ashland, Kentucky. “It’s probably going to be close. I think there will be a big national campaign rage. But in the end, I’m confident we’ll get the judge confirmed.”
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway accused Democrats of focusing solely on the abortion issue when considering a nominee’s qualifications for a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court.
“I’m just amazed how yet again, the left boils every single thing, including a Supreme Court justice, down to one issue: abortion,” Ms. Conway said on Fox News. She said Democrats who are unhappy about a potentially pro-life nominee “should have elected their person president, I suppose.”
Mrs. Sanders rejected criticism that the president is moving too quickly to appoint a nominee and noted that Mr. Trump compiled a list during the 2016 campaign of candidates whom he would consider for the high court.
“These are all individuals that have been looked at and considered, not just for the last week, but for the last two years,” she said.
The conservative group Americans for Prosperity is preparing a campaign of up to $1 million in support of the nomination, targeting Democratic senators in states that Mr. Trump won in 2016.
“We are confident they’re going to get a good nominee, and we anticipate an all-out effort,” said Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips. “This is a top issue for us.”
Americans for Prosperity has field offices in 36 states with paid staff.
“We have 11 field offices across Florida to urge [Democratic Sen. Bill] Nelson to vote the right way,” Mr. Phillips said. “It’s several hundred staff working with literally thousands and thousands of activists.”
The campaign, which is backed by the Koch network, will likely follow the model of the successful nomination last year of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, with paid media, direct mail and grass-roots events leading up to the Senate confirmation hearing in early fall.
“These Democrats, whether it’s Joe Donnelly or [Sen.] Heidi Heitkamp [of North Dakota], they’re either going to have to choose Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren — extreme partisan, far to the left of where their states’ voters are, or they’re going to have to choose what’s going to be a good, mainstream nominee for the Supreme Court,” Mr. Phillips said in an interview. “And voters in Indiana, North Dakota, Wisconsin — they’re going to expect these senators to genuinely consider this nominee.”
He added, “If they simply go off the deep end with Elizabeth Warren and Schumer and Bernie Sanders, who are these fierce partisans, I don’t think it’s going to be good for them, it’s going to hurt them.”
But Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Republican senators who support abortion rights, have expressed concern about the Supreme Court overturning Roe with the help of Mr. Trump’s next nominee. Ms. Collins called Roe v. Wade “settled law” and said she wants a nominee who will “respect precedent.”
Mr. Phillips said his group stands ready to encourage Republican senators to vote for the eventual nominee, but he doesn’t expect any Republican defections. He also noted that Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican and a harsh critic of Mr. Trump, is cooperating with the administration on judicial nominees.
“Judicial nominations so far have been arguably the most unifying issue for Republicans,” he said. “We would certainly expect every Republican senator to put aside any personal issues and not to have linkage with other issues. This nomination is too important to the country, to people’s lives and prosperity, to have any issue linkage or any kind of personal agendas to impact it.”
The White House said Monday that White House counsel Don McGahn will oversee the selection process and deputy press secretary Raj Shah is taking a leave of absence to work on the confirmation full time.
Mrs. Sanders said Justin Clark, director of the Office of Public Liaison, “will oversee White House outreach with key constituencies, coalitions, grassroots organizations and allies.”
“Teams of attorneys from the White House Counsel’s Office and Department of Justice are working to ensure the president has all the information he needs to choose his nominee,” she said. “The Department of Justice is fully engaged to support the nomination and confirmation efforts.”