President is pressured by key senators to pick an ideological centrist to succeed Justice Kennedy

President Donald Trump speaking aboard Air Force One Friday as he travels from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, to Bedminster, N.J.
President Donald Trump speaking aboard Air Force One Friday as he travels from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, to Bedminster, N.J. PHOTO:SAUL LOEB/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump said on Friday that he planned to interview one or two candidates this weekend at his Bedminster, N.J., resort to fill Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s seat, and plans to announce his final pick on July 9.

“I’ve got it narrowed to about five,” he said, including two women.

The president also said he wouldn’t specifically ask candidates about Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling making abortion legal. However, a potential nominee’s approach to the issue has been a factor in creating Mr. Trump’s list of 25 conservative candidates.

The president didn’t say if all of his five finalists were from that list, but he had earlier pledged to pick exclusively from it.

Late Thursday, the president met with a bipartisan group of six senators who will play a pivotal role in selecting Mr. Kennedy’s successor because they have deviated from their party on key votes in the past. The lawmakers signaled they want an ideological centrist, complicating Mr. Trump’s decision.

Among them were Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, both of whom back abortion rights. Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), and Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia also met with the president, the White House said.

“At the end of the day, this is where confirmation is made or broken,” a White House official said, referring to the senators who visited Thursday night.

Mr. Manchin said in a radio interview Friday he believed Mr. Trump would face stiff Senate resistance for picking a “hard-core” nominee, and that opposition to the Roe v. Wade decision would raise “red flags for all Americans.”

“If he picks somebody that is hard-core on Roe v. Wade or that is hard-core on repealing health care, that is a bigger lift, that is a harder person, going to be a harder person on either side,” he said.

Mr. Trump has an opportunity to remake the court for a generation in his choice of a justice who will replace the bench’s most important swing vote, but they must steer the pick through a slender Senate majority that allows little room for error.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has to lock down the support of at least 50 senators, with a GOP bloc of 51 that includes one senator fighting brain cancer, John McCain of Arizona, as well as several others who have shown themselves willing to buck their party in the past.

Opponents of the administration have already sought to center the debate on such flashpoint issues of abortion and health care, arguing that any candidate on Mr. Trump’s list will be too extreme.

Ms. Collins said Thursday she would be wary of a nominee committed to overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that broadly established a constitutional right to abortion.

“One of the questions that I always ask is, do they respect precedent? What is their view toward precedent? And from my perspective, Roe v. Wade is an important precedent, and it is settled law,” Ms. Collins told reporters.

She also said that she believed Mr. Trump should consider a broader swath of candidates than the 25 vetted by leaders of the conservative Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation for ideological reliability, and that she didn’t think “any outside group should determine the list of nominees.”

For many of Mr. Trump’s allies, the prospect of remaking the Supreme Court has been their priority, and they are jockeying to promote their favorites on the list of 25, including Judges Amy Coney Barrett, Allison Eid, Thomas Hardiman, Brett Kavanaugh, William Pryor and Amul Thapar.

Inside the White House, the person running the search process is White House counsel Don McGahn. He has already compiled extensive records on the 25 candidates—millions of documents in total, a White House official said Friday. “The White House Counsel’s Office has been preparing for this for a long time,” the official said.

Mr. McGahn has called about a dozen senators to sound them out about the nomination, the official said. Mr. McGahn didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Democrats left the Thursday meeting indicating that they had pressed Mr. Trump to chart a middle path, rather than a conservative one.

“I stressed the importance of nominating someone to the Supreme Court who is pragmatic, fair, compassionate, committed to justice, and above politics—traits that match Justice Kennedy and which I know are important to North Dakotans,” said Ms. Heitkamp. “I told the president that he has a chance to unite the country by nominating a true nonideological jurist.”

In a subsequent video posted on Facebook Friday, she said she’s made progress. “The president assured me he wants to look at someone that could gain a wide amount of support.”

Each of the Democrats in the group that met with Mr. Trump voted for a previous conservative Supreme Court pick of the president’s, Neil Gorsuch. But Mr. Gorsuch replaced the late Antonin Scalia, an iconic conservative, and so his appointment didn’t change the makeup of the court, and the Democratic votes didn’t make or break his confirmation.

Democrats face a steep fight in blocking a pick by Mr. Trump. Some activists see a potential path by replicating the party’s successful effort to block repeal of the Affordable Care Act—holding their own votes and keeping pressure on GOP senators to pick off just enough more.

Faiz Shakir, national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union who is coordinating with the Democrats, said: “One question is whether the nation sees this as a national referendum on Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose?”

Activists in Maine hope to put pressure on Ms. Collins as they did during the health care debate. “Abortion is a health care issue and we were very organized about health care when it was about the ACA,” said Karin Leuthy, co-founder of Suit Up Maine, a grass-roots group associated with Indivisible.

Write to Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com and Peter Nicholas at peter.nicholas@wsj.com

Appeared in the June 30, 2018, print edition as ‘Trump Narrows Court List To Five.’

COURTESY: WSJ

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