Trump closes in on top court pick

President plans to make announcement Monday night

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Thursday he has narrowed down — to two or three — the list of contenders he’s considering to fill the vacancy for the Supreme Court seat held by retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“I think I have it down to four people. And I think of the four people, I have it down to three or two,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One.

The president, who was traveling to a campaign rally in Montana, has wrapped up the interview process and is moving closer to picking his court nominee amid intense jockeying from various factions seeking to influence the choice.

Trump’s current top contenders are federal appeals court judges Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Raymond Kethledge, said a person familiar with Trump’s thinking who was not authorized to speak publicly.

With customary fanfare, Trump plans to announce his selection Monday night. The administration is preparing roll-out plans for the leading contenders, and hopes to have a decision on the top one or two names in the next couple of days, so staff can conduct a deep-dive background ahead of the possible prime-time event, according to a senior administration official granted anonymity to discuss the plans.

But as the president builds suspense for his second court pick in two years — a nominee who could tip the balance toward conservatives and revisit landmark rulings on abortion access, gay marriage and other issues — momentum is also growing among GOP supporters and detractors of the top contenders.

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Conservatives and some libertarian-leaning Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, have raised concerns about Kavanaugh, warning he could disappoint Republicans if his past decisions are a guide.

Paul and another Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, are supporting fellow Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who is not said to be under serious consideration by the White House but is the only lawmaker Trump has considered for the position.

To counter that, Kavanaugh’s allies have begun pushing back, reaching out to influential Republicans to ward off potential criticisms, according to one conservative who was the recipient of such outreach and spoke on condition of anonymity Thursday to discuss the situation.

The senior administration official, though, said the administration is feeling less heat than earlier in this week over the choices, particularly Kavanaugh, and believes the jockeying in general has calmed somewhat.

Vice President Mike Pence also met with some of Trump’s contenders in recent days, according to a person familiar with the search process. The person did not specify which candidates Pence met with.

Conservatives and some libertarian-leaning Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, have raised concerns about Kavanaugh, warning he could disappoint Republicans if his past decisions are a guide.

Paul and another Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, are supporting fellow Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who is not said to be under serious consideration by the White House but is the only lawmaker Trump has considered for the position.

To counter that, Kavanaugh’s allies have begun pushing back, reaching out to influential Republicans to ward off potential criticisms, according to one conservative who was the recipient of such outreach and spoke on condition of anonymity Thursday to discuss the situation.

The senior administration official, though, said the administration is feeling less heat than earlier in this week over the choices, particularly Kavanaugh, and believes the jockeying in general has calmed somewhat.

Vice President Mike Pence also met with some of Trump’s contenders in recent days, according to a person familiar with the search process. The person did not specify which candidates Pence met with.