Trump's Supreme Court strategy? He don't need no stinking strategy.

  • President Trump is planning to name his replacement on Saturday for the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.
  • Even so, the Trump White House has yet to engage the machinery that would normally push a nominee through the Senate, including tapping a sherpa to see the confirmation process to completion.
  • ‘They haven't gotten there yet,’ said a Republican close to Trump who explained both the White House counsel’s office and its legislative affairs teams would normally be working overtime by now to see a potential pick through to Senate confirmation.  
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President Donald Trump's effort to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat on the Supreme Court could best be described as this: Shoot, aim, vet.

It's the kind of scenario that has come to be expected from a White House renown for its abrupt policy reversals, back-stabbing personnel fights and a Twitter-obsessed boss. But the lack of a clear and coordinated strategy now is notable among Republicans close to the Trump administration given Ginsburg's recent health scares and the prospect that the president would get a chance to make a third lifetime appointment to the country's most important court.

"They haven't gotten there yet," said one Republican close to the president, who explained that both the White House counsel's office and its legislative affairs teams would normally be working overtime by now to see a potential pick through to Senate confirmation. 

The GOP sources interviewed by Insider said that one of the biggest challenges in getting a nominee named is that the White House bench for vetting potential picks is depleted amid so many West Wing departures and the intense focus on the president's reelection campaign. 

Of course the White House might not even drive the train on this nomination, with an army of conservative groups ready to push for the president's eventual pick and a tight-knit Senate Republican conference which occasionally seems to operate independent of the Trump administration. 

That die-hard Republican allegiance to Trump may ultimately be his nominee's saving grace. In typical times, the prospect that a Supreme Court nominee might not get the thorough scrubbing necessary would make for a risky political calculation. The Senate confirmation process is often renowned for weeding out bad candidates and uncovering old skeletons. Consider the case of Harriet Miers, the George W. Bush nominee who withdrew her name amid questions about her qualifications, or Robert Bork, the Ronald Reagan pick rejected by the Senate over concerns about his controversial policy views.

Here, a majority of Senate Republicans have already signaled they will back Trump's eventual nominee, even before the president's expected public rollout of his choice on Saturday. 

The conservative machine kicks into gear, with or without the White House

Republicans and conservative activists returned to work Monday after a wild weekend that started with news of Ginsburg's passing. They spent all day Monday and Tuesday on conference calls and in meetings gaming out how to get the public (and senators) on board. 

At the White House, Trump's counsel, Pat Cipollone has taken the lead on the vetting of the president's eventual nominee, according to a Republican familiar with the efforts. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff and an ex-North Carolina GOP congressman, is also expected to play a key role lobbying his former colleagues.

But the Trump administration still hasn't tabbed a "sherpa" for the eventual pick — the person traditionally tasked with getting nominees through a grueling Senate battle — or designated communications staff to help run the campaign, Republicans told Insider. 

None of that seems to matter to the conservative right, where the selection has all the urgency you'd expect from a historic chance to reshape the court in their favor.  

"I don't know how, politically I could write the script in a way that would be more compelling to a non-socialist voter," said Matt Schlapp, a Trump campaign adviser and president of the American Conservative Union, which runs the influential Conservative Political Action Conference each year.

Stars align for Trump's third SCOTUS pick, well before he's made the pick

Ultimately, Trump's pick to replace Ginsburg looks all but assured of reaching the finish line.

On Tuesday, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a thorn in Trump's side during the January impeachment trial, said he would support fast-tracking the nominee. And top Republicans who said they would wait until after the election, including longtime Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, have flip-flopped to support rushing through Trump's eventual pick before November 3. 

Graham, who will oversee the Supreme Court hearings in the Senate, told CNN Tuesday he planned to have three confirmation hearings in quick succession. 

But the rush to fill the seat amid an all-out GOP effort to stop the party from losing both the White House and its Senate majority has left the administration without the machinery used to get through his first two appointments: Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. 

For starters, Don McGahn, Cipollone's predecessor as the top White House lawyer, handled all the heavy lifting leading up to the confirmation hearings for Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. 

Judicial appointments were McGahn's bread and butter, and it's even why he stuck around inside Trump's chaotic administration while serving at the same time as a star witness for special counsel Robert Mueller's investigators who were examining whether the president had obstructed justice.

This go round, Cipollone is expected to do the heaviest lifting. The White House attorney who also led Trump's impeachment defense team in January now staffs a team of lawyers that includes White House deputy counsel Kate Comerford Todd, who herself has been mentioned on the short list for the Supreme Court.

Then there's the question of who will be the sherpa. When Trump picked Gorsuch, the White House tasked former New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte with helping carry his nomination through the Senate. And in 2018, when Trump picked Kavanaugh, they turned to former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl to help win that fight. 

The Trump administration has also been hobbled by continual turnover and a stunning slew of tell-all books from former top advisers describing Trump as bereft of principles outside winning his own re-election. The one-two punch has routinely left the White House unprepared for new challenges and left it playing defense on a near-endless stream of stunning revelations about the president.

Amy Coney Barrett has served on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit since 2017.C-SPAN

Court pick plays in 2020 election

Republicans close to the White House told Insider this week that federal appellate judge Amy Coney Barrett holds the inside track for the job, which the president has said he'll announce on Saturday. Barrett met with Trump at the White House Monday, according to media reports.

Barrett was on the short list for the Supreme Court seat that went to Gorsuch in 2018. But she fell short because of a lack of court rulings to judge her credentials, said one Republican close to the White House. Now that Barrett has been on the Chicago-based 7th Circuit US Court of Appeals for three years, the White House feels more comfortable pushing her nomination, the Republican said.

There's also 2020 electoral math in play with the president's upcoming pick. Schlapp and other conservative leaders said that picking Barrett, a conservative Catholic, could help eat into Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's support among Catholics while pulling wavering conservatives off the fence from abandoning Trump in November. 

While the White House has been scrambling to address the sudden Supreme Court vacancy, conservative groups that provide the firepower needed to support any nominee have cobbled a strategy together for how they can help shepherd Trump's pick onto the court. 

The Judicial Crisis Network, which led the fight on the Kavanaugh nomination, is expected to take a lead role again organizing conservative and anti-abortion groups.

The Club for Growth, a conservative political group, plans to spend $5 million on a broad campaign to get Trump's pick on the court. The effort will include engaging conservative activists, spending on digital and on-air ads and spending in key Senate races on behalf of Republicans — including in Montana and Alabama. 

The group will also be targeting Republican senators who may vote against Trump's pick, including Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has said the Senate should wait until after the election to proceed.

"This entire thing sharpens everything we've already been doing," said Mallory Quigley, spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group close to the White House and integral in previous Supreme Court fights. 

Conservative groups and the Senate GOP's campaign arm have been polling the upcoming court battle. A second Republican close to the White House said the politics are positive for the president in terms of moving so quickly to place a new justice onto the court.

"They're going to run this through on the eve of the election," the Republican said. "It's going to help more than it hurts." 

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