Guiding Trump’s nominees

Guiding Trump’s nominees
© Greg Nash

Jamil Jaffer has served as a White House lawyer for former President George W. Bush and senior counsel for the House Intelligence Committee, but one of the Los Angeles native’s most rewarding gigs is a job that isn’t even on his official résumé: helping Republican nominees get confirmed by the Senate.

Jaffer, who founded the National Security Institute at George Mason University and serves as vice president for strategy and business development at IronNet Cybersecurity, has worked as a volunteer behind-the-scenes on a slew of nominees, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenFox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network DOJ to Supreme Court: Trump decision to end DACA was lawful Top immigration aide experienced 'jolt of electricity to my soul' when Trump announced campaign MORE and, most recently, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHouse Democrats demand administration consult with Congress before determining refugee admissions Pompeo jokes about speaking at Trump hotel: 'The guy who owns it' is 'going to be successful' Why the Taliban still want dialogue with the United States MORE and CIA Director Gina Haspel.

The confirmation kingpin says he likes to help nominees whom he either knows personally, such as Gorsuch and Nielsen, or highly qualified candidates who he thinks could use an extra boost, like Pompeo and Haspel.

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“It’s the right thing to do,” said Jaffer, a frequent presence on cable news. “When Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel are being attacked for no good reason, just because people don’t like the president, when they’re obviously highly qualified, highly capable people who deserve these jobs … that bothers me.”

Jaffer was a former law clerk for Gorsuch, who is now more than a year into his tenure. On Monday, Gorsuch joined the majority opinion in a closely watched Supreme Court ruling that sided with a Colorado baker who refused to make a custom cake for a same-sex wedding.

Jaffer first dipped his toes into confirmation battles when he helped work on the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts. But the 41-year-old realized he would have another shot at helping a conservative jurist win a lifetime appointment to the high court when President TrumpDonald John TrumpSupreme Court comes to Trump's aid on immigration Trump is failing on trade policy Trump holds call with Netanyahu to discuss possible US-Israel defense treaty MORE took the White House.

Gorsuch was not on Trump’s initial list of potential Supreme Court nominees, but his name was added to a second list. So Jaffer and a handful of other former Gorsuch law clerks banded together in an effort to provide outside support in any way they could.

While Trump’s shortlist quickly whittled down, it wasn’t until Jaffer was sitting in the White House East Room ahead of Trump’s official rollout announcement that he knew Gorsuch would be the nominee.

Afterward, Jaffer said he and the other law clerks played the song “Rollout” by Ludacris on their phones as they exited the White House.

“‘Rollout’ was the theme song for the announcement,” Jaffer said. “There was definitely a confirmation playlist that evolved over the course of the confirmation process.”

From there, Jaffer and his fellow law clerks worked to provide additional support to the White House team as they prepped Gorsuch for his confirmation fight.

Their first order of business was to put together a letter in support of Gorsuch to help boost his nomination. They were able to get every former Gorsuch clerk over the past 10 years who was eligible to sign the letter, which was then sent to congressional leaders in the Senate.

Jaffer also helped lead critical mock sessions, also known as “murder boards,” to help prepare Gorsuch for his confirmation grilling on Capitol Hill.

And the law clerks assembled a list of talking points designed to highlight Gorsuch’s conservative credentials and combat potential criticisms, which they disseminated through TV hits, radio interviews and op-eds.

Their main message, according to Jaffer, was that Gorsuch is “a judge’s judge.”

“He’s conservative, to be sure, but not outside the mainstream,” Jaffer said. “He believes in a judge doing their job, which is to interpret the law, not to make the law.”

As Gorsuch was making the rounds meeting with senators, however, his nomination hit a snag when Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told reporters that Gorsuch had called Trump’s tweets attacking federal judges “disheartening” and “demoralizing.”

Trump at one point threatened to rescind Gorsuch’s nomination after the criticism became public, according to a Washington Post report late last year.

“There were many moments where I had a fear that things might go off the rails — that was one of them,” Jaffer said. “But at the end of the day, you want the person nominated to be who they are. He told senators the honest truth about what he thought about things.”

With enough Democrats still threatening to filibuster Gorsuch’s nomination, Senate Republicans ended up deploying the so-called nuclear option to lower the threshold needed for Supreme Court nominees, paving the way for Gorsuch to win final confirmation.

Heading into the floor vote, Jaffer, who was sitting in the Senate gallery next to White House counsel Don McGahn, said there was an air of intensity mixed with reserved excitement.

The Senate ended up voting 54-45 to confirm Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, with three Democrats backing his nomination.

“There was definitely high-fiving and hugging in the hallway outside the Senate chamber afterward,” Jaffer said.

Jaffer clerked for the new justice for four months, helping him get started at the high court. This summer, the pair will be teaching a summer program together in Italy for George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.

Drawing on his Gorsuch confirmation experience, Jaffer has since used a similar playbook to help Nielsen, Pompeo and Haspel with their nominations by coordinating letters of support and acting as a media surrogate.

However, each nomination has faced increasing uncertainty — a sign, he worries, of growing partisanship on Capitol Hill.

“It certainly got more and more dicey from Nielsen [to Pompeo],” Jaffer said. “The reality is, historically, Republicans and Democrats have voted for highly qualified nominees. It’s only in recent years we haven’t seen that.”

But Jaffer said that won’t stop him from helping future nominees if he believes in the candidate, even if they are a Democrat.

“If the nominee is a good nominee and it’s someone I know well and trust, and they have a good reputation, then there’s nothing wrong with being involved with that process,” Jaffer said. “It just depends on the candidate and whether they need outside support.”