As he casts about for ways to revive his troubled reelection campaign, President Trump is apparently longing for a good, vicious Supreme Court confirmation fight as a tonic for his troops, according to CNN’s Kevin Liptak:
The President has long cast a potential third Supreme Court nomination as rationale for his reelection. But as the court’s term ends, Trump has begun musing at how a more immediate vacancy may help improve his weakened political standing in the months before November’s election …
It’s an alluring prospect Trump believes could galvanize both his loyal base but also provide an opportunity to improve his standing among those voters whose support he is now hemorrhaging, people familiar with Trump’s thinking said.
It became something of a truism among Republicans after the 2018 midterms that the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight fired up the GOP’s conservative base and saved several vulnerable Senate seats. Trump is famously obsessed with keeping his supporters excited, but what’s more interesting is his apparent belief that a Supreme Court pick can help him with swing voters, too.
Trump believes [women] might be swayed if he nominates a female justice. Trump’s backing among women has waned as he adopts a hardline stance on racial matters and largely ignores the coronavirus pandemic. Trump has also suggested older voters might appreciate efforts to solidify the court’s conservative leaning for another generation, believing that group is focused on the court as an election issue.
It’s unclear why Trump thinks the college-educated suburban women who have been stampeding away from him would reconsider their position if he nominated a hard-core conservative woman like Amy Coney Barrett (a favorite of religious conservatives) or Neomi Rao (currently a MAGA celebrity because of her aggressive judicial efforts to clear Michael Flynn of any criminal charges) to the Supreme Court. And for that matter, older voters defecting to Joe Biden because of Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus or his general character aren’t necessarily going to think better of him after another public display of his transactional relationship with white conservative Evangelicals on judicial appointments.
More to the point, of course, Trump can’t have a confirmation fight unless there’s a vacancy on the Court, and he understands that octogenarian liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are not going to accommodate him by retiring before November. And there’s no evidence to indicate he has deployed dark magical arts to hasten those two justices toward a hospital bed or the grave. As Liptak is hearing it, Trump is fantasizing about one of two Court conservatives retiring: Clarence Thomas or Samuel Alito.
The Alito retirement rumors have been fanned by well-connected conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt, as the Washington Post’s Robert Costa reports:
Thomas has been the subject of retirement speculation for years, though his atypically active role on the Court during the current term has belied the idea he’s tired of the gig. But Liptak speculates that Trump may have been personally wooing Thomas and his activist wife, Ginni, presumably to encourage the justice to favor him with a SCOTUS vacancy:
Even to some inside the White House, the relationship between Trump and the Thomases has been the subject of speculation. Some aides have privately wondered whether Trump’s courtship of the pair was motivated by some political ends, like orchestrating a conveniently-timed retirement.
Even if Thomas did oblige Trump by retiring soon after the current term ends, it’s a vacancy that is not likely to produce a free choice for the president. Replacing Thomas with a white justice, female or not, would mean the Court would not have a Black justice for the first time since 1967, which wouldn’t be a good look for a president who is constantly parrying well-founded accusations of racism. Just as important, Thomas’s constitutional extremism means Trump would be under considerable pressure from his allies in legal circles to find a successor equally likely to anchor the Court’s far-right wing.
So the more you look at how it might all go down, the more it appears that Trump may just be spoiling for a Supreme Court confirmation fight for the sheer base-energizing hell of it. Perhaps he is worried about recent grumbling over his first nominee Neil Gorsuch’s perfidy in not only favoring the application of civil-rights laws to LGBTQ folks but also writing the opinion for the Court on the subject, leading to this presidential tweet:
If promising “more Justices” is good for Trump’s reelection, actually producing one before November might be better. But there’s a big downside risk as well. A big SCOTUS confirmation fight will help energize Democrats as well, particularly given the successful Republican effort in 2016 to deny Barack Obama’s SCOTUS nominee Merrick Garland even a Senate hearing. Because Democrats don’t control the Senate, they cannot reciprocate by denying a 2020 Trump nominee consideration. But they can sure make the process just another symptom of a stormy and divisive presidency that needs to come to a merciful end in November.