Donald Trump has announced he will nominate conservative federal Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, setting off an election-year confirmation fight with Democrats.
The president has admitted he aims to seat a sixth conservative justice who he predicts will help decide whether he serves a second term.
Mr Trump said he was fulfilling one of his “highest” duties, calling it a “very proud moment.” He opened his remarks by saying the country had spent the week honouring a “legend” in Ms Ginsburg.
He called Ms Barrett a judge of “sterling credentials” and dedication to the Constitution.
She is considered a darling of the president’s conservative political base, viewed as a “constitutional originalist” who has a long track record of interpreting the text of the 231-year-old United States Constitution as inflexible and etched in legal stone.
Her opinions since becoming a federal jurist, as well as her prolific canon of academic writings, show she shares the views of the president and his conservative base on everything from strict abortion rights to limiting restrictions on gun rights.
Anti-abortion and women’s rights activists, along with most congressional Democrats, fear her likely confirmation later this year could endanger the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade. While Democrats are mulling options to try delaying her taking the vacant high court seat until after Election Day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the president have the votes required to seat her possibly before 3 November if they can conduct a speedy Senate confirmation process.
Mr Trump hailed her academic and career history, noting she served as Supreme Court clerk for the late high court Justice Antonin Scalia, a fellow conservative.
The president said she was “celebrated” by her colleagues while at University of Notre Dame, and is “imminently qualified” for the position.
“You are going to be fantastic,” he told her under cloudy skies in the White House’s Rose Garden. “Absolutely fantastic.”
As the invited guests applauded, she mouthed, “Thank you.”
The president said she would uphold an “independent judiciary” even as Democrats say Mr Trump is trying to ensure a conservative high court might hand him the presidential election should it be contested on grounds of illegitimate mail-in ballots.
“Amy Coney Barrett will decide cases base on the text of the Constitution as it is written,” Mr Trump said in a statement that will be applauded and echoed by his conservative political base.
Notably, Mr Trump reminded the audience the Senate confirmed her for her federal judge post on a bipartisan vote. He noted, again in a message to his political base just weeks before Election Day, cases they care about related to “the survival of our Second Amendment and religious freedom.”
“There is no one better to do that than Amy Coney Barrett,” he said. “I am supreme confident Judge Barrett will make rulings based on a fair reading of the law.”
Mr Trump, who has warned the Supreme Court might have to decide the winner of November’s election, appeared to flick at that possible high court decision.
Nominee honors RBG
“The stakes for our country are extremely high,” he said before a slew of American flags hung near the Oval Office.
Ms Coney Barrett said she understood the stakes of the appointment, saying “I love the United States Constitution.”
“I am truly humbled by the prospect of serving on the Supreme Court,” saying she would be “humbled at who came before me,” if she is confirmed.
She noted the flags on the White House compound are still at half staff in Ms Ginsburg’s honor, saying the late justice “smashed” for women what where “glass ceilings” of gender discrimination.
Ms Coney Barrett noted Ms Ginsburg and her mentor, Mr Scalia, had a “long and deep friendship” but “disagreed fiercely in print without rancor in person.”
“These two great American demonstrated arguments … need not destroy affection,” the nominee said.
Mr Trump made the pick despite senior congressional Democrats warning a fast-tracked confirmation process could have immediate and longer-term ramifications for him and his party. Speaker Nancy Pelosi last Sunday would not rule out a second impeachment of the president to trigger a Senate trial and stall the high court confirmation process, though such calls quieted as the week plodded on.
The top Senate Democrat, however, is warning all kinds of things are possible, including an overhaul of the upper chamber’s rules that might allow his party to add everything from more states to more high court judges. “Our number one goal must be to communicate the stakes of this Supreme Court fight to the American people," Mr Schumerr reportedly told his members this week. “Let me be clear: if [Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell and Senate Republicans move forward with this, then nothing is off the table for next year. Nothing is off the table.” (Democrats would have to win control of the Senate first.)
The president also chose to move forward in defiance of a majority of American voters, and most in key swing states, who have been telling pollsters they prefer waiting to see who wins the November election.
Fifty-seven per cent of Americans said the winner of the election should have picked a Ginsburg replacement and a vote on that nomination should occur next year, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Thirty-eight per cent said the selection should always have been Mr Trump’s and a vote should be conducted by the sitting Senate (which expires in early January).
Not surprisingly, Republicans overwhelmingly wanted Mr Trump to make the pick and almost all Democrats want the selection paused until after the election.
All about the base
The president continued almost exclusively targeting the white male base within his conservative base, picking Ms Coney Barrett just weeks before the election in defiance of independent and women voters. Sixty-one per cent of independents told the Post and ABC survey they want the selection made after the election, and 64 per cent of women voters agree.
Polls show voters in a number of key battleground states that experts say will decide the election, like across much of the rest of the country, trust Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to make the pick more than they do the president..
In Ohio, 48 per cent of registered voters oppose what Mr Trump did Saturday evening, along with 51 per cent in Pennsylvania trust Mr Biden more. In Nevada, the figure stands at 50 per cent. On the flip side, 42 per cent of that bloc in both Ohio and Pennsylvania trust Mr Trump more, along with 39 per cent in Nevada.
Mr Biden leads Mr Trump in each state, and political strategists say a loss for the president in both Pennsylvania and Ohio could be, for him, an Electoral College dagger.
“Ohio insiders believe that the state is closer than last time, and that Donald Trump is struggling mightily in suburban areas,” according to Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
The best case scenario for Trump is that he wins the state comfortably again, with that margin indicative of enduring strength in other parts of the region,” Mr Kondik added. “The best case scenario for Biden is that his improved margins with white voters helps him cut Trump’s towering margins in rural and small town areas, and that the realignment toward Democrats in suburban areas and with white voters with a four-year degree that effectively skipped Ohio in 2016 hits the state in force this November.”
But Mr Trump, as always, is questioning the polls.
“One of the worst polls in 2016 was the @FoxNews Poll. They were so ridiculously wrong. Fox said they were going to change pollsters, but they didn’t. They totally over sample Democrats to a point that a child could see what is going on,” Mr Trump tweeted Friday morning. Fact check: Fox’s final 2016 poll of the national popular vote were accurate, predicting former Secretary State Hillary Clinton would win that tally by 4 percentage points; she won the popular vote by 2 per cent.
Mr Trump also said last week he wants to get Ms Coney Barrett on the high court before November’s election because he believes the race’s outcome ultimately will be decided by its jurists. He, echoing Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz and others in his party, say a full nine-judge panel is needed to avoid a potential 4-4 tie and no other way to decide who will be president come 20 January of next year.
"I think this will end up in the Supreme Court, and I think it's very important that we have nine Justices," Mr Trump told reporters on Thursday. “I think having a 4-4 situation is not a good situation."