WASHINGTON — In calls from the Oval Office, from Air Force One, and from his New Jersey golf club, President Donald Trump returned over and over to the same question as he mulled his next Supreme Court nomination: "Who's the best here?"
His final answer was hardly a surprise: Trump landed on the person who had long been his leading contender — DC-based federal appeals judge Brett Kavanaugh, an established Republican favorite. Still, the days leading up to the grand reveal on Monday night were filled with frenzied deliberations, last-minute lobbying efforts and an aggressive attempt to ensure secrecy, according to nine people with knowledge of the process who requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
With characteristic flair, Trump sought to keep the guessing game going about his choice, tweeting hours before the ceremony: "I have long heard that the most important decision a U.S. President can make is the selection of a Supreme Court Justice - Will be announced tonight at 9:00 P.M."
Trump began hunting for a new justice nearly two weeks earlier, when 81-year-old Justice Anthony Kennedy came to visit him in the White House to share his retirement plans. But the process really started more than two years ago when, as a candidate, Trump released a list of potential court picks vetted by conservative groups in a calculated bid to win over skeptical GOP primary voters.
It was that list Trump drew from when he selected Justice Neil Gorsuch last year, and he wanted to replicate that playbook.
From the list of 25, Trump narrowed the group to six and then, by the weekend, to four. The other finalists were federal judges Thomas Hardiman, Amy Coney Barrett and Raymond Kethledge. Barrett had become a conservative favorite after she was grilled about her Catholic faith by Democrats during her confirmation hearing last year. Hardiman, a runner-up for the Gorsuch seat, brought a more blue-collar pedigree and an outside-the-beltway perspective, and Kethledge was viewed as a safe confirmation prospect.
Trump interviewed all four and was quickly taken by Kavanaugh, according to a person familiar with the process, who said Trump met with Kavanaugh for about an hour and a half over more than one meeting. He came away impressed with the Yale-educated Kavanaugh's academic credentials, his extensive library of written opinions and the frequency with which other courts cited them.
Meeting with Republican lawmakers last week at the White House, Trump's mind seemed made up as he made the case for Kavanaugh, according to a Republican familiar with but not authorized to speak about the private meeting. Trump seemed convinced Kavanaugh could win confirmation and argued that a more conservative judge would have a hard time getting approval from Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. As the group exited the room, Trump said in parting, "Kavanaugh's going to be great."
But if Trump was leaning toward Kavanaugh, he continued to deliberate on others. At the White House July 4th festivities, Trump continued to poll friends and allies about his court options, said a person familiar with the events. Trump reached out repeatedly to senators, including making a call to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who had openly lobbied for the job. The White House pointedly declined to label that conversation an interview.
In addition to seeking input on who was the "best," Trump again and again asked, "What do you think are the issues?" with each candidate.
On Friday, Trump spoke to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from his New Jersey golf club. The Kentucky lawmaker laid out the confirmation paths for his top options, noting that Kavanaugh's lengthy paper trail — both from his time as a judge and working in President George W. Bush's administration — could make for a more challenging process. But a person familiar with the talk stressed that McConnell did not advocate for any one option.
Over the weekend, Trump's interest in Hardiman appeared to perk up, as he started asking more questions about the judge who has served with his sister, Judge Maryanne Trump Barry. But by Saturday, Trump's mind was all but made up on Kavanaugh, said a Republican familiar with the deliberations, noting that Trump was referring to him as a conservative who could be confirmed and calling him a "classic."
Still, less than 48 hours from the announcement, seemingly set on Kavanaugh, Trump continued to poll friends and allies. It's not clear whether that was because he was truly still uncertain, wanted to maintain the suspense, or a combination of both. On Sunday, he had lunch at his golf club with Fox host Sean Hannity, Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, seeking their input. At that particular meal there was no consensus, with Hannity favoring Barrett, Ruddy backing Kavanaugh and Giuliani preferring Hardiman, said a person familiar with the process, but not authorized to speak about private conversations.
About nine hours later, it was a done deal. Trump called Kavanaugh with the news, said a senior White House official. He also notified Vice President Mike Pence and White House counsel Don McGahn.
On Monday, Trump phoned Kennedy to let him know his former law clerk would be nominated to fill his seat. McConnell also received a heads-up from the president, as did long-serving Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. The president briefed Senate Republicans at the White House on Monday evening shortly before making the public announcement.
Seeking to keep the suspense alive, the White House had let few people in on the decision in advance. But there were a few tells.
A senior White House official said the West Wing was surprised the decision didn't leak out after U.S. marshals whisked Kavanaugh from the federal courthouse.
Monday evening, last-minute rumors began to circulate as Kavanaugh's former law clerks and Bush era co-workers trooped into the East Room for the announcement. But still, many of those in the room did not know.
Pleased by the process and the secrecy, Trump surveyed the room.
"I know the people in this room very well," Trump said. "They do not stand and give applause like that very often, so they have some respect. "