President Donald Trump’s search for a Supreme Court justice to succeed Anthony Kennedy is focusing on a trio of federal judges, with a decision expected this week in anticipation of an announcement on Monday, people familiar with the search said.
Following a brisk round of interviews Monday and Tuesday, the three front-runners at this late stage in the president’s search are all U.S. appeals court judges: Brett Kavanaugh of Maryland, of the D.C. Circuit; Raymond Kethledge of Michigan, of the Sixth Circuit; and Amy Coney Barrett of Indiana, of the Seventh Circuit.
Mr. Trump, who spent part of the Fourth of July holiday at his golf club in northern Virginia, has been taking advice from lawmakers and trusted confidants as he settles on a nominee who could set a new direction for a high court split between conservative and liberal factions that have dueled for years.
Since Justice Kennedy was often a swing vote, Mr. Trump’s selection could tip the balance when it comes to some of the most divisive issues the court faces: abortion rights, health care and the limits of executive power, among them.
Advisers in recent days have called Mr. Trump to talk up the merits of different candidates.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), one of Mr. Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, spoke to the president earlier in the week and gave a frank assessment of the strengths and drawbacks of different candidates, said an aide to the senator, who added that Mr. Cotton wasn’t promoting any one person.
Others have called the Republican president to promote federal appeals court judge Thomas Hardiman of Pennsylvania, reminding Mr. Trump that he has a compelling life story as a onetime taxi driver.
In conversations, Mr. Trump has been asking advisers to rate the merits of different candidates and to explain how outside constituency groups might line up in the confirmation fight.
A central tension is whether to base the selection primarily on a dispassionate review of judicial records and written rulings, or on a candidate’s biography and the personal chemistry Mr. Trump feels during the interviews, people close to the White House said.
Some want to see the president follow the model used in picking Neil Gorsuch for the court in 2017, a process that leaned heavily on judicial writings in the belief that is the best way to predict a judge’s behavior on the bench.
“I think President Trump is conducting a search built on the principles he established during his first Supreme Court selection—written opinions and the thinking behind them matter most. Past Republican presidents focused on biography and interviews,” said Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist.
The search process is being run by White House counsel Don McGahn, who has been advising the president on the candidates’ judicial record and vetting their qualifications. Mr. Trump likes sparkling resumes, but also values candidates who project self-confidence and don’t appear “weak,” as one person close to the selection process said.
Mr. Trump spoke by phone Tuesday to at least two potential nominees, a person familiar with the matter said: Judge Hardiman and Judge Joan Larsen of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
That follows a round of interviews on Monday with federal judges Barrett, Kavanaugh and Kethledge and Judge Amul Thapar of the Sixth Circuit, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Trump is believed to have enjoyed his meeting with Judge Kavanaugh, a former clerk of Justice Kennedy. Another fan of Judge Kavanaugh is Mr. McGahn, a person close to the White House said.
Mr. McGahn has made the argument that Judge Kavanaugh’s long record of judicial rulings makes him a known quantity, this person said. Other people close to the White House have said that the president and Mr. McGahn worry that a nominee who lacks such a record may turn out to be more malleable once he or she reaches the court.
But Judge Kavanaugh’s candidacy has drawbacks. One of his allies is Karl Rove, who served as an adviser to former President George W. Bush and during the 2016 campaign called Mr. Trump “a complete idiot.”
Mr. Trump also enjoyed his interview with Judge Kethledge and felt the two “hit it off,” a person close to the White House said.
Judge Barrett, a former clerk to the late Justice Antonin Scalia who spent most of her career as an academic at Notre Dame Law School, is seen by some allies of the president as looking the part of a modern Supreme Court justice. She is a mother of seven who juggled her family and career and was the focus of scrutiny for her Catholic faith during her confirmation hearing last year for the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit.
Mr. Trump also spoke on Monday to Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican on the White House’s long list of 25 candidates for the post who has expressed enthusiasm for the job. People close to the search believe Mr. Lee’s chances are slim.
With the president planning to announce his choice with celebratory fanfare Monday, it is unlikely there will be follow-up interviews with the contenders, said one person close to the process. Mr. Trump instead is expected to replay the advantages of each candidate with Mr. McGahn and other advisers before throwing his lot with one, this person said.
One consideration: The president considers it important to stoke excitement among conservatives. “He’s going to make sure there’s a ‘wow’ factor right out of the gate, and he’s going to make sure that the movement is going to rally around whoever it is—or at least not shoot at whoever it is,” this person said.
The vacancy created by Justice Kennedy’s retirement is a chance for Mr. Trump to put a lasting imprint on the high court. But first he will need to steer the nominee to confirmation in a Senate where Republicans hold 51 of 100 seats; also, one Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, is frequently absent because of illness.
Several GOP senators have bucked their party in the past, including Susan Collins of Maine, who on Tuesday became the focus of an advertising campaign by Naral Pro-Choice America, trying to persuade her to reject any candidate who doesn’t share her belief that the court should maintain broad support for abortion rights.
Mr. Trump has been courting a trio of Democratic senators in states he won in 2016— Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping to peel off Ms. Collins in particular, as well as Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, another centrist Republican who supports abortion rights.