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World In filling court vacancy, Trump hopes to match success of last year's smash hit

WASHINGTON — All four of President Donald Trump’s candidates for the Supreme Court are white, middle-aged federal appeals court judges with reliably conservative legal records.

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One of them, Brett Kavanaugh, went to the same high school as Trump’s last nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

Georgetown Prep, outside Washington. Another, Raymond Kethledge of the 6th Circuit, so resembles Gorsuch in background, philosophy, hobbies — both are outdoorsmen who like fishing — and even physical appearance, that some conservatives have taken to calling him “Gorsuch 2.0.”

As Trump holed up Friday in the private residence at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, to make his decision — determined to wring some residual drama from a process that is not, on the merits, all that dramatic — the similarities to Gorsuch may prove as important as any other qualification.

Trump, aides said, views the Gorsuch nomination as one of the unalloyed triumphs of his presidency, a model for how he would like to fill the seat soon to be vacated by Justice Anthony Kennedy. The president’s goal is a replay of January 2017, when he unveiled Gorsuch in a much-anticipated ceremony in the East Room of the White House, presenting him to an rapturous audience of Republican lawmakers almost as if he were the winner of a “Survivor” episode, Supreme Court edition.

“I think you’re going to really love it, like Justice Gorsuch,” Trump said Tuesday at a dinner in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. “We hit a home run there, and we’re going to hit a home run here.”

So Trump has said he will introduce his second nominee in a prime-time TV appearance Monday after spending the weekend mulling his options and, apparently, deciding on Sunday. In addition to Kavanaugh and Kethledge, aides said he is weighing Amy Coney Barrett and Thomas Hardiman.

“I’m very, very happy with them, and we will pick somebody who will be outstanding,” Trump told reporters Thursday. “Those are very terrific people. The whole list is extraordinary.”

But Trump, two people close to him said, has narrowed the contest to Kethledge — with whom aides said he had an excellent interview — and Kavanaugh — who has the enthusiastic backing of the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, but is handicapped by his links to President George W. Bush, for whom he served as staff secretary. Kavanaugh’s wife, Ashley, was a personal secretary to Bush.

A photograph of Bush’s political guru, Karl Rove, throwing a comradely arm around a younger Kavanaugh has circulated among conservatives who oppose his candidacy. Trump, aides said, deeply resents Rove for his criticism of his presidential campaign.

Trump’s disdain for Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who was favored to beat him in the 2016 Republican primary race but who suffered a humiliating defeat in one contest after another, has also remained intact.

At a rally Thursday in Great Falls, Montana, Trump even took a rare swipe at President George H.W. Bush, who is 94 and in frail health, mocking one of his signature campaign slogans.

“Thousand points of light,” Trump said. “What does that mean? I know one thing. ‘Make America Great Again’ we understand. Putting America first we understand. Thousand points of light, I never quite got that one. What the hell is that?”

Trump recently told an associate that “the Bushies in the White House are out to get me,” without specifying who or what he meant, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation.

The most prominent former aide to George W. Bush who has worked for Trump was Joseph Hagin, who helped orchestrate the president’s recent summit in Singapore with Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, which Trump credited with defusing the nuclear showdown with the North. Hagin recently announced he would retire.

Still, Trump’s interview with Kavanaugh went well, according to the people close to the president. White House officials played down the significance of his arguments for impeaching President Bill Clinton, made nearly 20 years ago when he was an author of the report of the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr.

Critics and some people close to Trump have expressed concern that Democrats could use those arguments to make his Senate confirmation hearing a referendum on the standards for impeaching Trump.

But it is not as if Trump was without criticism of even Gorsuch. For all of his sheen and his televised debut, Gorsuch did briefly run afoul of Trump, as well, when he distanced himself from some of Trump’s Twitter posts about the legal system.

Conservatives have found things to question in the decisions of both Kavanaugh and Kethledge.

Kavanaugh dissented from a majority ruling on whether his court had the jurisdiction to hear a case on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Kethledge ruled in favor of immigrants in a handful of cases, leading the right-wing website Breitbart to question whether he was soft on immigration.

Trump has indicated to some associates that Kavanaugh’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act could be problematic. On the other hand, his academic pedigree — like that of Gorsuch — is impeccable: Yale and Yale Law School. And as he demonstrated with Gorsuch, the president seems to put a high value on a candidate’s credentials.

“It is an extraordinary résumé — as good as it gets,” Trump said of Gorsuch, who graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School and has a doctorate in law from Oxford. Several aides said Trump was determined to name someone from either Yale or Harvard.

Kethledge is a graduate of the University of Michigan and its law school, while another finalist, Barrett, attended Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, and Notre Dame Law School. She remains in the mix, officials said, but her interview with Trump was brief, and her star has faded.

Trump, his aides said, is calling friends for advice while in Bedminster. His chief of staff, John Kelly, is with him — noteworthy, given the spate of reports that he is about to leave the White House. McGahn, aides said, has backed off Kavanaugh a bit, telling colleagues he would be happy with at least three of the candidates.

The president’s advisers are counting on him making a clear choice so they can begin a campaign promoting his pick — one that is likely to include television ads, according to a person briefed on the plans. The White House is preparing background packets for Congress on Kavanaugh, Kethledge, Barrett and Hardiman, although he seems an also-ran, as he was last year.

Hardiman had a cameo role in Gorsuch’s nomination when a camera crew spotted him driving across his home state, Pennsylvania, hours before Trump was to announce his choice. White House officials planted the idea that he was part of a ruse to distract curious reporters, although Hardiman said he was merely visiting a fellow judge in Altoona.

Either way, the White House managed to keep the Gorsuch appointment largely under wraps, and when Trump finally introduced the judge and his wife, Louise, at the White House, he could not resist gloating over his own showmanship.

“So was that a surprise?” he asked. “Was it?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman © 2018 The New York Times

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