Trump taps Brett Kavanaugh to succeed Kennedy on Supreme Court

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE on Monday selected Brett Kavanaugh as his nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, setting up a fierce confirmation battle as he seeks to cement conservative control of the nation’s highest court.

Trump announced the selection of Kavanaugh, a politically connected judge on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, after a suspenseful day that resembled the lead-up to his first Supreme Court pick, Justice Neil Gorsuch.

“There is no one in America more qualified for this position and no one more deserving,” said Trump, who expressed confidence Kavanaugh will set aside his political views “to do what the law and the Constitution require.”

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Kavanaugh was introduced during a reality TV-style event in the East Room of the White House, the same way Trump unveiled Gorsuch.

The president sought to build drama up until the end, refusing to announce his pick until five minutes after he started speaking. That is when Kavanaugh, his wife and two daughters walked down a long corridor and onto the podium.

Dozens of Republican senators, top administration officials and outside allies, such as conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham and Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, mingled afterward in the main entrance hall for a reception while a Marine Corps band played a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.”

The celebration underscored Republican hopes about the direction of the court under Trump.

By selecting Kavanaugh, the president is replacing a swing vote on the bench with a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. Kennedy sided with liberals in key decisions on abortion and gay rights, issues that will be flash points in the Kavanaugh's confirmation battle.

“If confirmed by the Senate, I will keep an open mind in every case,” said Kavanaugh, who added that he was “humbled” and “grateful” for being nominated to the court.

Kavanaugh, 53, earned the nod despite his work as a White House aide under former President George W. Bush, a frequent target of Trump’s criticism.

A former clerk to Kennedy, Kavanaugh was long seen as a front runner to replace his former boss and had the support of White House counsel Don McGahn, who played a key role in the selection process, and other GOP legal power players.

Kavanaugh also graduated from Yale University and Yale Law School, qualifications that sources close to the process said appealed to Trump.

Kavanaugh worked for Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who investigated former President Clinton in the 1990s, and once argued that a president could be impeached for lying to his staff or misleading the public, which could have ripple effects for the Russia investigation.

But in his legal writings, Kavanaugh later argued the president should be shielded from the demands of criminal and civil investigations because they interfere with his official duties — an opinion that might appeal to Trump given the prolonged investigation by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerHouse progressive: Pelosi 'has it right' on impeachment Democrats talk subpoena for Mueller Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna: 'I'm not there yet' on impeachment MORE.

The White House is gearing up for a tough confirmation process in a Senate where Republicans have a razor-thin 51-49 majority that has been reduced to 50-49 with Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain says Ben Carson should be developing brain cancer treatment, not working at HUD Graham urges Trump not to abandon infrastructure talks with Democrats Pelosi receives John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award MORE’s (R-Ariz.) prolonged absence.

Kennedy was often the swing vote in a series of 5-4 decisions, and Trump and the GOP Senate have a chance at changing the court’s direction for decades to come with the pick.

While Kavanaugh was seen as a safer choice than the more conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett, his long paper trail, as well as his decisions in key ObamaCare and surveillance cases, led some GOP senators to warn Trump against choosing him.

He faced a three-year confirmation battle in the Senate when Bush nominated him to the D.C. Circuit. He was eventually confirmed by a vote of 57-36, with just four Democrats supporting him. Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Energy: EPA watchdog finds Pruitt spent 4K on 'excessive' travel | Agency defends Pruitt expenses | Lawmakers push EPA to recover money | Inslee proposes spending T for green jobs Lawmakers take EPA head to task for refusing to demand Pruitt repay travel expenses Dems request investigation of lobbyist-turned-EPA employee who met with former boss MORE (Del.) is the only Democrat still serving who supported Kavanaugh.

White House officials told reporters after the event they still expect Kavanaugh to be confirmed by the time the Supreme Court’s new session begins in the fall.

“Yes,” White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said when asked if he is confident Kavanaugh will be in place by Oct. 1.

“I frequently have doubts about the pace of the United States Senate, but is it our expectation that we’re gonna have this done by Oct. 1? Yes,” he added.

The president had spent the past week whittling down his list of contenders from an initial group of 25 conservative legal figures to four federal appeals court judges: Kavanaugh, Barrett, Raymond Kethledge and Thomas Hardiman.

Trump did not make his final decision until Sunday, one day before the announcement ceremony, according to a source familiar with the process. That is when Trump called Kavanaugh to inform him he received the nomination.

Outside groups are preparing to wage an expensive war over the nomination on television airwaves and in battleground states ahead of the fall midterm elections, in which the court battle has become a top issue.

The conservative Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) plans to launch a $1.4 million ad campaign Monday night following the announcement. The ads will air on national cable networks, online and in four red states — Alabama, Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia — where Democrats hold Senate seats.

The ads follow a seven-figure national and digital advertising campaign JCN launched last month that also targeted vulnerable Democrats. JCN said it budgeted $10 million to get Trump's latest nominee confirmed, and the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which is funded by GOP mega-donors Charles and David Koch, said it planned spend at least $1 million, teeing the confirmation fight up to be the most expensive Supreme Court battle the country has ever seen.

All three Democratic senators who voted for Gorsuch — Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Senate panel approves Interior nominee over objections from Democrats Labor head warns of 'frightening uptick' in black lung disease among miners MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOn The Money: Stocks sink on Trump tariff threat | GOP caught off guard by new trade turmoil | Federal deficit grew 38 percent this fiscal year | Banks avoid taking position in Trump, Dem subpoena fight Fight over Trump's new NAFTA hits key stretch Former senators launching effort to help Dems win rural votes MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyK Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers Obama honors 'American statesman' Richard Lugar Former GOP senator Richard Lugar dies at 87 MORE (Ind.) — declined invitations to attend the White House event, their offices said. The three are considered among the most vulnerable Democratic senators in November’s midterms.

Liberal groups, fearing a reversal of cases that legalized and affirmed the right to an abortion, are fighting back and putting pressure on moderate Republicans such as Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Collins offering bill to boost battery research as GOP pushes energy 'innovation' Biden says Congress must move to protect abortion rights MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOvernight Energy: Park Service plans to pay full-time staff through entrance fees | Oil companies join blitz for carbon tax | Interior chief takes heat for saying he hasn't 'lost sleep' over climate change Democrats grill Trump Interior chief for saying he hasn't 'lost sleep' over climate change Congress must press Interior secretary to act on climate change MORE (Alaska.)

“The balance of the Supreme Court is at stake — we cannot allow it to be tilted against the constitutional right to access abortion,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Foundation for America.

But Trump’s nominee could change a whole lot more than the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision.

Kennedy served as the swing vote in a number of LGBT rights cases, most notably by writing the opinion in 2015 that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, as well as cases on gun rights, immigration and voting rights.

In a statement following the announcement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Threat of impeachment takes oxygen out of 2019 agenda Chances for disaster aid deal slip amid immigration fight MORE (R-Ky.) called Kavanaugh a “superb choice” who should be confirmed with bipartisan support.

“This is an opportunity for senators to put partisanship aside and consider his legal qualifications with the fairness, respect, and seriousness that a Supreme Court nomination ought to command,” he said.

Updated at 10:31 p.m.