How Trump kept Supreme Court justice nomination a secret

After announcing his Supreme Court nomination, US President Donald Trump shakes the hand of Judge Neil Gorsuch in the East Room at the White House.
After announcing his Supreme Court nomination, US President Donald Trump shakes the hand of Judge Neil Gorsuch in the East Room at the White House. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Tuesday night's (Jan 31) presidential announcement of a Supreme Court nomination had all the makings of a Donald Trump production - except for this: The secret held.

When the United States President strode down the red-carpeted hallway of the White House to take the lectern beneath the crystal chandeliers of the East Room and face a bank of live cameras - in prime time, at 8.02pm sharp - his viewers did not know for certain which of the finalists might step forward to claim a lifetime seat on the nation's highest court.

It was Judge Neil Gorsuch who did so, walking from a side room with his wife Louise to join the president at centrestage.

"So was it a surprise?" Mr Trump asked in his remarks.

It was.

And that counted as a major feat for an administration already becoming known for its leaks. Mr Trump's pick of Mr Mike Pence as vice-president leaked out in news reports prematurely. So did almost all of his Cabinet selections. Many of the executive orders Mr Trump has signed leaked out ahead of time.

But not his Supreme Court pick.

"I thought, with this president there was a decent chance that it would be somebody that we didn't have any idea it was going to be - and tonight's 'Apprentice'-style delivery moment might have had an evening gown competition and a swim suit edition," Republican Senator Ben Sasse said.

Of course, Judge Gorsuch had been widely reported as one of Mr Trump's finalists, and he was on a list of 21 judges the latter released during last year's campaign as his potential nominees.

Mr Trump considered six finalists, all federal judges, to fill the vacancy left by the late justice Antonin Scalia: Gorsuch, Thomas Hardiman, William Pryor Jr., Diane Sykes, Amul Thapar and Don Willett, according to White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

Of those six, Mr Trump personally interviewed four: Gorsuch, Hardiman, Pryor and Thapar. The first three met with Mr Trump in his personal residence at Trump Tower in New York on Jan 14, Mr Spicer said.

In the interview process, Mr Trump evaluated the finalists in part on which would best emulate Justice Scalia in judicial philosophy and background, his advisers said.

"He was constantly looking for somebody who reflected Justice Scalia's love of the Constitution, adherence to law, not making up the law as you go to fit your political whims or your personal interests," said Ms Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to the president.

In recent weeks, Mr Trump began to settle on his choice, but did not make a final decision until Monday, when he called Judge Gorsuch to notify him that he was the pick. White House Counsel Don McGahn informed the other finalists that they had not been selected, Mr Spicer said.

From there, Trump's aides set into motion a cloak-and-dagger plan they had orchestrated to bring Gorsuch to Washington without him being detected.

After receiving the president's call, Spicer said, Gorsuch and his wife travelled to a neighbor's house in Boulder, Colo. They were met by a team of lawyers from the White House Counsel's Office, who briefed the judge on the announcement plans for Tuesday and helped him prepare for the frenzy that would come.

The White House aides ferried Gorsuch down a quiet farm road to the airport, where they boarded a military jet for the flight to Joint Base Andrews, just outside of Washington, Spicer said.

The judge and his wife stayed in Washington on Monday night at a private residence before visiting the White House on Tuesday, prior to the announcement.

All day on Tuesday, speculation was rampant about Mr Trump's selections. Judge Hardiman had been spotted at a gas station in Pennsylvania, and CNN reported that he along with Gorsuch were being brought to Washington to add suspense ahead of Mr Trump's final selection.

Mr Spicer said that only Judge Gorsuch travelled to Washington, noting that Judge Hardiman had been spotted making a pit stop on his way to a meeting in Pennsylvania.

Then there were the Twitter accounts. Two similar accounts were created identifying both Judge Hardiman and Judge Gorsuch as Mr Trump's Supreme Court nominees, with links to White House websites.

It seemed as if the White House social media team had been behind the accounts - again, to create suspense - but White House officials said that was not the case.

In the end, hopes for a reality-show ending - the president holding a rose, calling both men on stage and, to the drumroll of a military band, giving it to one of them - were dashed.

Mr Trump's announcement was formal and scripted - presidential, even - as he read from his telepromters: "I would like to ask Judge Gorsuch and his wonderful wife, Louise, to please step forward," he said.

"Please, Louise, judge. Here they come. Here they come."