There’s a saying inside Trump world when it comes to choosing nominees for judicial vacancies: “If you’re 60 or older, forget about it.” President Donald Trump wants to ensure conservative control of the federal court system for the next 50 years — not just the next decade.
To mark his latest step toward achieving that goal, the president invited Republican senators, conservative attorneys and religious freedom proponents to a ritzy White House event on Wednesday where he announced that his own appointees will soon comprise a quarter of the nation’s 179 appeals court judges.
It hasn’t happened quite yet. A group of judicial nominees that would push Trump over the 25 percent threshold are still awaiting confirmation, and will not be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee until Thursday.
But that didn’t stop the White House from organizing the East Room event in an apparent attempt to placate Trump allies who have been urging the president to focus less on assailing House Democrats and more on contrasting his accomplishments with the ongoing impeachment inquiry. One of those allies, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was front and center during the event, joined by seven of his GOP colleagues — Sens. Ted Cruz, Ben Sasse, Mike Lee, Thom Tillis, Josh Hawley, Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley — whose allegiance will be critical if Trump ends up facing an impeachment trial in the upper chamber early next year.
Trump didn’t mention impeachment once during the 40-minute event, which took place hours after House committees overseeing the impeachment probe released the transcript of their closed-door deposition with acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor.
“From a political standpoint, it’s smarter to talk about your accomplishments, especially when the No. 1 issue in every poll for white evangelicals — the president‘s most important voting bloc — is judges,” said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel at First Liberty Institute, who flew in from Dallas for the president’s announcement.
For weeks, White House officials have been grappling with a president who prefers to monitor the impeachment inquiry in real time instead of filling his schedule with the official events many advisers wish he would do more of. In the rare instances when Trump has stepped out of the impeachment bubble for non-campaign-related appearances, he’s done so to discuss the issues he most enjoys bragging about.
Last week, Trump traveled to Chicago to deliver remarks at an annual gathering of international law enforcement leaders. During the course of his speech, he bemoaned “activist judges” and sanctuary cities, took shots at disgraced “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett (who police accused of staging an attack on himself by MAGA fans) and employed the kind of hard-line language that has long endeared Trump to his core supporters.
“All over the world, they’re talking about Chicago. Afghanistan is a safe place by comparison,” he said at one point, employing his traditional extreme exaggeration in referring to the Windy City’s alarming crime problem.
Next Tuesday, the president will deliver remarks at the Economic Club of New York — another event he will use to highlight his policy agenda and compare it to the “radical socialism” he’s accused Democratic presidential hopefuls of attempting to implement. A senior administration official said Trump will underscore the economic growth Americans have seen under his leadership, along with his administration’s labor policy and deregulatory achievements.
When Trump took the stage Wednesday to discuss the latest milestone in his effort to reshape the judiciary, it was another event that guaranteed a temporary reprieve from the topic of impeachment. Even as he mentioned the upcoming 2020 election, Trump avoided discussing House Democrats or the party’s presidential hopefuls, many of whom have endorsed the impeachment inquiry.
“This is such a big moment in our history,” he said, claiming that he will take the lead “in terms of [the] quality and quantity” of his judicial appointees “by the time we finish.”
Trump continued, “The average age of my newly appointed circuit court judges is under 50. They’re young, smart and that’s 10 years younger than the average age of President Obama’s nominees.”
That the event happened to come a day after Republicans suffered major setbacks in Virginia and Kentucky — a state Trump won by 30 percentage points in 2016 — also proved to be convenient for the president. As Democratic lawmakers and party strategists flooded the airwaves with claims that Trump’s brand has hurt GOP candidates, the president made sure his support from the Senate Republicans in the crowd was on full display.
“Mr. President, this is one of the many ways you’re helping to make America great again,” McConnell said, after Trump invited him to say a few words.
In his own brief remarks, Graham praised Trump for the “defining moment” when he stuck by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh after Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault during his battle for Senate confirmation.
“A lot of people would have pulled the plug on him,” said the South Carolina senator.
Trump’s record number of judicial appointments could easily become the most enduring aspect of his legacy if impeachment costs him his bid for reelection next November. Not only does the appointment of conservative judges consistently top his supporters’ list of priorities, it is frequently cited by White House allies and GOP candidates as one of the most successful aspects of his presidency. Aided by Senate Republicans, Trump has managed to install a record 157 judges across the federal judiciary — including two Supreme Court justices — and to reverse perceived partisan imbalances in several district courts.
“A number of circuits have flipped from majority-Democratic appointees to majority-Republican appointees. Even the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is getting closer to being even,” said Shackelford. (Trump has made more appointments to the 9th Circuit, which he has accused of handing down “ridiculous” rulings, than any other federal appeals court.)
While Trump marked the latest milestone Wednesday in his appointment of federal judges, the lack of impeachment references marked a noticeable departure from his recent public remarks. During other official events over the last week, the president managed to weave mentions of the House investigation, or of his proclaimed innocence, into his remarks — regardless of the theme of the event.
In Chicago, he accused Smollett of perpetrating “a real big scam, just like the impeachment of your president is a scam.” And when the Washington Nationals visited the White House on Monday to celebrate their World Series victory, Trump quipped that Americans wanted to talk only about baseball and impeachment during their steady climb to the championship series.
Marianne LeVine contributed reporting.
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