Trump's Supreme Court Wishlist Won't Work This Time - 2020-09-10
In May 2016, Donald Trump made an unprecedented decision to reveal the individuals he would consider for the Supreme Court if elected. That shortlist might have won him that election. Exit polling and longer-term studies showed that a substantial number of GOP voters turned out for Trump because of the primacy of the Supreme Court in their concerns, including some who were repulsed by him but enticed by the dream of finally, after decades of effort and funding, capturing the federal judiciary for a generation. Trump, who campaigned among religious voters by telling them they had no other option, rewarded these voters when he became president, by ramming through not just two conservative Supreme Court justices but more than 200 lower court federal judges in record time. We are now blessed with judges who degrade transgender people, defend police brutality, defy abortion precedent, flout judicial ethics, run interference for their benefactor, and write Breitbart-style screeds about the evils of gun safety laws. Some of these new judges had never tried a case. Some of them haven't even been lawyers for a decade.
On Wednesday, Trump tried to revive the practical magic of that fateful 2016 announcement. It fell flat. In a bored and listless tone, the president rattled off 20 additions to the original Supreme Court shortlist, for a grand total of 45 contestants for a vacancy that does not yet exist. New picks include Sens. Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Josh Hawley, alongside lower court Trump judges and a few administration officials who've been extra obsequious to the boss. He sounded most enthusiastic when claiming that Joe Biden's "radical justices" would "erase national borders, cripple police departments, and grant new protections to anarchists, rioters, violent criminals, and terrorists." But even this perfunctory recitation of American Carnage: SCOTUS Edition cannot gin up the same kind of energy the first list imparted to his campaign. The 20 new names won't sway anyone this time, not just because they aren't very interesting, but because there is no one left to convince: Everyone who is planning to vote for Trump because of the Supreme Court made up their minds long ago.
There are no more Trump-skeptic conservatives to pick off because seizing the judiciary for the far right is one promise that the president has actually kept. In 2016, it was still an open question whether Trump would appoint a Federalist Society golden boy (as his supporters hoped) or Miss Kentucky (as they feared). On the campaign trail, he sounded like a wild card, even musing about appointing his own sister, a moderate federal appeals court judge. (His sister will be unlikely to get the nod this time.) But to the Republican establishment, a moderate SCOTUS nominee was even more horrifying than the prospect of an unqualified one. Trump fell in line after then–campaign counsel Don McGahn outsourced the judge issue to Leonard Leo, then-head of the Federalist Society. More so than usual, the Supreme Court was on the ballot: The next president would select Justice Antonin Scalia's successor, since the Senate Republicans refused to let President Barack Obama fill the seat. Leo helped Trump assure anxious voters that he would replace Scalia with another arch-conservative. That was what "the list" served to secure.