WASHINGTON (CNN) — “So, was that a surprise?” President Donald Trump said with a grin, moments after unveiling his pick for the Supreme Court.
The secret was finally out, more than a week after Trump had actually narrowed down his list of finalists to one man: Judge Neil Gorsuch, a Coloradan who sits on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Until a few days ago, only a half-dozen of the president’s closest aides knew Trump had made up his mind, and in a sign of the importance Trump ascribed to the secrecy of the pick, they kept it that way — even amid a flurry of leaks on other issues. The decision, which Trump made in the first few days after his inauguration, according to a source close to the process, marked the end of a week of suspense-building around the pick that displayed Trump’s continued penchant for showmanship.
The White House Tuesday night saw cheerful Republican congressmen — including those critical of the administration in recent days — praising Trump’s pick and his success in maintaining the suspense. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy remarked to reporters that “they did a very good job” keeping the pick a secret and Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Senate’s president pro tempore, congratulated Trump’s sons Eric and Donald, Jr. in the halls of the White House on the “great pick.”
Trump told Gorsuch he was the nominee on Monday. That phone call set into motion a stealth operation, in which, the federal judge escaped his Colorado home with the help of White House staffers who shuttled him via a back farm road to an awaiting military jet, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said late Tuesday night.
“You saw a very well planned out and well executed strategy tonight. This was a great effort by the entire team,” Spicer said.
But there was still some drama. The other favorite for the nomination — Judge Thomas Hardiman of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals — ended up driving more than 100 miles Tuesday morning toward Washington from his Pittsburgh home in an apparent gambit to keep everyone guessing — and continue to flood the airwaves with a suspenseful storyline.
The guessing-game was very much in keeping with the flair for publicity that marked the rollouts of many of Trump’s other high-profile picks. Amid his search for a vice president, Trump publicly met with several of the top contenders and trotted them out to rallies for public auditions, for example, and later suggested he might change his mind after then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence had already landed in New York.
Here, Trump played to Washington’s craving for hints of who his Supreme Court might be with a lighter touch — meeting with candidates in private and keeping any inkling that he had made a final decision a secret until Tuesday — before unveiling the pick in a prime-time address.
Met with four candidates
As Washington scoured for tidbits of information in the last week that would shed light on whom Trump would pick, the president played coy, and helped build the suspense.
“I have made my decision pretty much in my mind, yes,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News last week.
In truth, he already had — and not just “pretty much” — landing on Gorsuch just days after he met privately with Gorsuch and two other candidates at his private residence in Trump Tower. He also met with a fourth finalist around the same time. Spicer confirmed the four meetings to reporters Tuesday night.
Only the final four got a private audience with the president-elect, following a months-long vetting process led in part by his campaign-turned-transition’s legal staff and outside advisers, including Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society.
Trump had first asked to meet with Leo, the Federalist Society’s executive Vice President, in the spring of 2016 when he sought input from conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation, on building a list of potential Supreme Court nominees he would release in a bid to quell conservatives wary of his impending nomination as the Republican Party’s standard-bearer.
He eventually produced a list of 21 potential Supreme Court nominees — including Gorsuch — and within days of Trump’s startling electoral victory, the list had whittled down to just six.
It was then that Trump gathered Leo and his senior staff — including his Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions and his top advisers Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus — and told them what he really wanted in a nominee, a source who was in the meeting said. Don McGhan, now White House Counsel, was not at that specific meeting, but led the process of vetting and and helping Trump select a nominee.
Discussed abortion and Obamacare
Trump wanted someone who wouldn’t be “weak” — as he had called Chief Justice John Roberts after the conservative chief justice sided with liberals on the Court to uphold Obamacare — and he wanted someone with the pedigree to be “respected by all,” a source who was in the meeting said, quoting Trump.
Trump also said that he wanted someone who would “interpret the Constitution the way the framers meant it to be,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity to divulge details of the private meeting.
Trump discussed the importance of two issues, Obamacare and abortion, and sought to better understand how decisions on those issues would play out in the Supreme Court. But the real-estate mogul, who unlike most presidents has no legal background, also focused on learning the backstories of each of the finalists.
“He was interested in learning the personal story of each nominee…because those kinds of personal stories are windows to the character,” Leo said in an interview Tuesday night. “He was determined to find someone who was not weak and someone independently-minded.”
Trump made his pick after his senior staff and Vice President Mike Pence had met with the finalists and after consulting with a range of individuals, as he has often done when making big decisions. When Trump was shopping for a running mate, he also would frequently ask dinner guests and others he met with who they believed he should pick.
Trump this time, his aides said, was also intensely focused on finding a Supreme Court nominee who would carry on the legacy of the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last February. And as he searched for a nominee to ultimately take Scalia’s empty seat, Trump spoke “regularly” with Scalia’s wife, Maureen McCarthy Scalia, Conway told reporters on Tuesday.
“Mrs. Scalia has been a rock throughout this entire process,” Conway said. “She has been somebody who the President has talked to regularly throughout this process and he has very much enjoyed his time with her in person and over the phone.”
CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Allie Malloy contributed to this report.