WASHINGTON – Hoping to replicate a strategy long seen as key to his appeal among conservative voters, President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced he is adding 20 names to a list of Supreme Court candidates he's pledged to choose from if he has future vacancies to fill.
The list includes a trio of conservative Republican senators: Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri — all buzzed-about potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates — as well as Christopher Landau, the current ambassador to Mexico, and Noel Francisco, who argued 17 cases as the Trump administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer.
“Every one of these individuals will ensure equal justice, equal treatment and equal rights for citizens of every race, color, religion and creed," Trump said as he made his announcement at the White House.
Trump tried to cast the list in contrast with judges who could be nominated if his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, wins in November, warning Biden would select “radical justices” who would “fundamentally transform America without a single vote of Congress," even though Biden has never outlined his list of potential picks and the Senate must confirm any nominee.
The release, less than two months before the election, is aimed at repeating the strategy that Trump employed during his 2016 campaign, when he released a similar list of could-be judges in a bid to win over conservative and evangelical voters who had doubts about his conservative bonafides.
The list includes a number of people who have worked for Trump's administration, including Gregory Katsas, whom Trump nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Before that, Katsas served as a legal adviser on some of the president’s most contentious policies, including his executive orders restricting travel for citizens of predominantly Muslim countries and his decision to end a program protecting some young immigrants from deportation.
Francisco, the former solicitor general of the United States, also defended Trump’s travel ban, his unsuccessful push to add a citizenship question to the U.S. census and the decision to wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects hundreds of thousands of young people from deportation. He also argued that a landmark civil rights law didn’t protect gay, lesbian and transgender people from employment discrimination, a position the court ruled against 6-3 earlier this year.
Also on the list is Daniel Cameron, the Kentucky Attorney General who is currently deciding whether to criminally charge three Louisville police officers in the March shooting death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician who was killed when officers entered her apartment with a no-knock warrant during a drug investigation.
In response, Cotton tweeted that he was “honored” Trump had asked him to consider the role and “will always heed the call of service to our nation."
“It’s time for Roe v. Wade to go,” he added, referring to the court's landmark 1973 abortion rights decision.
Hawley, however, said he had already made clear to the president and his staff on multiple occasions that he had “no interest" in the role.
The high court is currently divided 5-4 between conservatives and liberals. While there is no current vacancy on the court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, has been undergoing cancer treatment, and three others members of the court are in their 70s and 80s.
Trump has already remade the federal bench for a generation, with the Republican Senate confirming more than 200 of his judicial nominees. And any vacancy in the highest court would give November's winner — be it Trump or Biden — the ability to shape its future for decades to come.
Trump has stressed that power on the campaign trail, claiming the person who wins could have "anywhere from two to four, to maybe even five” Supreme Court justices to pick, though that would require an extraordinary level of turnover.
Trump released two lists with a total of 21 names of potential Supreme Court nominees during his previous presidential campaign and added another five names in 2017 after becoming president. Trump’s two nominees to the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, were both drawn from the list.
Even in a race reshaped by the pandemic and the national reckoning over race, Trump's frequently references the appointments in campaign speeches and continues to highlight the brutal fight around Kavanaugh's nomination as he tries to replicate the excitement it generated on the right and make the race an us-vs.-them battle over American values and cancel culture.
“Did you ever see anything like that?" Trump told a rally crowd last month in New Hampshire.
For the president's allies, the list —- which Trump finalized Wednesday — is seen as a way to excite his base as well as well as remind voters of what's at stake come November.
“I think it's very important way for the president to reaffirm his commitment to an issue that many conservatives and Republicans see as a priority," said Leonard Leo, the longtime executive vice president of the conservative Federalist Society who helped with the Kavanaugh and Gorsuch confirmations. “This a great way to remind people of the legacy he’s already established for himself in this area.”
Trump’s rival for the presidency, former vice president Biden, has promised to nominate a Black woman to the high court if given the chance. Biden, too, has said he’s working on a list of potential nominees, but the campaign has given no indication that it will release names before the election. Democrats believe doing so would unnecessarily distract from Biden’s focus on Trump’s handling of the pandemic and the economy, while also giving the president and his allies fresh targets to attack.
Trump, however, insisted that presidential candidates “owe the American people” a list of whom they'd consider because, aside from “matters of war and peace, the nomination of a Supreme Court justice is the most important decision an American president can make."
Any list may be meaningless, however. Either man’s ability to add to the court depends on having a majority in the Senate, which confirms nominees. Republicans currently hold 53 seats in the chamber to Democrats’ 45, with two independents who caucus with the Democrats, but Democrats could reclaim the majority this November.
The court’s oldest members are Justice Ginsburg and Justice Stephen Breyer, 82, both liberals, and Justice Clarence Thomas, 72, and Justice Samuel Alito, 70, two conservatives. Ginsburg made news this summer when she announced she is being treated for a recurrence of cancer but has no plans to step down as long as she can still do the job.
Trump and the White House have been careful not to appear too eager for Ginsburg to retire, but Trump has said he would “absolutely” nominate a new justice should a vacancy arise during the remainder of his term.
While all presidents tend to look for the same characteristics in potential Supreme Court picks, including stellar legal credentials, nearly half of those named by Trump Wednesday are non-judges. Of the 11 judges on the list, 10 were nominated by Trump to their current posts. Women represent less than a third.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller in Washington and Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report.