Trump weighs top picks for Supreme Court amid last-minute maneuvering

    President Trump said he was “close” to choosing a Supreme Court nominee Sunday after a weekend at his New Jersey golf club evaluating four leading candidates and mulling the likely response of key senators and his core supporters to each prospect, according to White House officials and Trump advisers involved in the discussions.

    Over rounds of golf with friends, meals with family, and a flurry of phone calls and meetings with aides, Trump remained coy about his final decision, which is expected to be announced Monday evening from among the four federal judges atop his shortlist: Brett M. Kavanaugh, Thomas Hardiman, Raymond Kethledge and Amy Coney Barrett.

    “I’m very close to making a decision,” Trump told reporters Sunday afternoon. “Have not made it official yet. Have not made it final.”

    He added: “It’s still — let’s say it’s the four people. But they’re excellent. Every one. You can’t go wrong.”

    In a tweet Monday morning, Trump said: “I have long heard that the most important decision a U.S. President can make is the selection of a Supreme Court Justice.” He indicated he would stick to plans to make the pick public in a 9 p.m. news conference.

    Hardiman, a runner-up when Trump chose Neil M. Gorsuch as his high court nominee last year, received a wave of new attention in the weekend discussions, according to two people briefed on the matter but not authorized to speak publicly about it.

    But White House officials cautioned Sunday that Trump’s informal conversations with golf partners and friends did not necessarily hint at whom he would ultimately select, a decision that could tilt the bench to the right for decades.

    At various times, Kavanaugh, Barrett and Kethledge have been seen as the leading candidates. Trump likes the suspense: With a showman’s sense of timing, he boasted last year that he kept Gorsuch’s selection closely held until the prime-time announcement.

    But some involved in the process said the situation is more fluid this time than it was with Gorsuch.

    This weekend, Trump recounted how close he came last year to selecting Hardiman, who was recommended by the president’s sister and sometimes-confidante, retired federal judge Maryanne Trump Barry. She served with the Pennsylvania-based Hardiman on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

    And Hardiman’s working-class roots — he drove a taxi during his days as a law student at Georgetown University — have been cited as a plus inside the White House, along with his conservative rulings. His boosters, sensing this weekend that Hardiman could be ascending on the president’s list, have been busy making phone calls to friends in Trump’s inner circle.“He’s got a story that’s compelling beyond the taxicab,” former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a friend of Hardiman’s, said in an interview. “I’m talking to people about his service work with his church in West Virginia and about how he has helped people seeking asylum from communist countries. He speaks Spanish. His wife comes from a Democratic family, and he knows how to engage with all kind of people, not just Republicans.”

    Kavanaugh, who lives in the Maryland suburbs, serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; Michigan’s Kethledge is on the 6th Circuit; and Indiana’s Barrett is on the 7th Circuit.

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who will lead the confirmation fight on Capitol Hill, spoke with Trump by phone Friday, according to two Republican officials briefed on the exchange.

    The officials underscored that McConnell did not push any choice on the president. But, they said, McConnell did note that Hardiman and Kethledge could fare well in the Senate because their reputations and records were not as politically charged as others on the president’s short­list of nominees.

    A McConnell spokesman declined to comment. The New York Times first reported McConnell’s call with Trump.