Donald Trump had effectively wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination when he visited Tampa for a rally last June, but he still faced skepticism and outright hostility from many in the GOP.
So, as he’d done in the past with wavering Republicans, Trump played the Supreme Court card.
“We have a war to win against a very crooked politician named Hillary Clinton, OK?” the part-time Palm Beach resident told the crowd at the Tampa Convention Center. “The Republican Party really should get their act together, they have to come together. We’ve got to win. And if for no other reason, the Supreme Court, remember that.”
Despite his many departures from Republican orthodoxy, his checkered ideological history and a temperament that raised concerns within his own party, Trump’s repeated pledges to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court helped persuade most of the GOP’s conservative base to stick with him.
Now President Trump is expected to repay that loyalty when he announces his choice for a Supreme Court vacancy this week.
The court has had an opening since conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died last February and the GOP-controlled Senate refused to consider President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to replace him.
Trump has promised his nominee will come from a list of 21 conservatives his campaign circulated last year after getting input from the conservative Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation. Trump first promised to go public with potential Supreme Court appointees in a speech at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach last March in which he acknowledged conservative doubts about his candidacy.
“I am going to give a list of either 5 or 10 judges that I will pick — 100 percent pick — that I will put in for nomination. Because some of the people that are against me say, ‘We don’t know if he’s going to pick the right judges,’ ‘Supposing he picks a liberal judge’ or ‘Supposing he picks a pro-choice judge,’ ” Trump said at the March 20 Palm Beach County GOP fundraising dinner.
Trump put forward 11 names in May and 10 more in September. Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles Canady and Miami-based U.S. District Court Judge Federico Moreno are among those Trump named.
Five federal appeals court judges from Trump’s list have been generating the most discussion for the upcoming pick: William Pryor, Neil Gorsuch, Thomas Hardiman, Diane Sykes and Raymond Kethledge.
Trump mentioned Pryor and Sykes during a February 2016 debate as examples of conservative judges he’d appoint. Hardiman sits on the same Pennsylvania-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as does Trump’s sister, Maryanne Trump Barry.
“It’s really an embarrassment of riches here … All of them would be great choices,” said Carrie Severino, the chief counsel and political director for the Judicial Crisis Network, which plans to help a conservative nominee in the Senate confirmation fight.
“There were a lot of conservatives who were very, very skeptical of Donald Trump, but they cared about the courts and that list gave them a great deal of comfort,” said the Heritage Foundation’s John Malcolm, who recommended six of the judges who appeared on Trump’s list.
One of Trump’s harshest critics concedes the Supreme Court list helped prevent Republican defections.
“The Supreme Court was a value-added for Donald Trump that turned skeptical Republicans into at least tolerant Republicans of Trump. It was something we saw turn up in focus groups over and over and over again,” said Rick Wilson, a Tallahassee-based Republican consultant and leading “Never Trump” figure who tried to persuade conservatives to vote for independent Evan McMullin.
“The Supreme Court was the unspoken and spoken selling proposition for Donald Trump well beyond any other factor for base Republican voters,” said Wilson.
An exit poll showed 21 percent of voters called the Supreme Court the “most important factor” in their choice for president. Those voters broke for Trump by a 56-to-41 percent margin.
Longtime social conservative combatant John Stemberger, the president of the Florida Family Policy Council, said his reservations about “New York liberal” Trump were overcome by his Supreme Court pledge.
“That would be the number one,” Stemberger said. “If the Supreme Court was conservative already the argument would have been much harder for him. It was a key factor in convincing evangelicals and faithful Catholics to vote for him.”
Since Scalia’s death, the high court has been split 4-4 between Democratic and Republican appointees.
Trump’s decision to publicize his potential court picks months in advance reassured conservatives but has also helped liberals prepare their opposition.
Daniel Goldberg, legal director of the liberal Alliance for Justice, told the Associated Press his group almost certainly will oppose anyone on Trump’s list.
“President Trump has made clear what kind of justice he intends to nominate,” Goldberg said. “He said he intends to nominate a reactionary who doesn’t share the constitutional values of the American people and who will undermine fundamental constitutional protections.”
During the 2016 campaign, candidate Donald Trump listed 21 conservatives he said he’d consider to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. The list:
Keith Blackwell — Georgia Supreme Court
Charles Canady — Florida Supreme Court
Steven Colloton — U.S. Court of Appeals, 8th Circuit
Allison Eid — Colorado Supreme Court
Neil Gorsuch — U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit
Raymond Gruender — U.S. Court of Appeals, 8th Circuit
Thomas Hardiman — U.S. Court of Appeals, 3rd Circuit
Raymond Kethledge — U.S. Court of Appeals, 6th Circuit
Joan Larsen — Michigan Supreme Court
Mike Lee — U.S. Senate, Utah
Thomas Lee — Utah Supreme Court
Edward Mansfield — Iowa Supreme Court
Federico Moreno — U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida
William Pryor — U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit
Margaret A. Ryan — U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces
Amul Thapar — U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Kentucky
Timothy Tymkovich — U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit
David Stras — Minnesota Supreme Court
Diane Sykes — U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit
Don Willett — Texas Supreme Court
Robert Young — Michigan Supreme Court
source: Trump campaign