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White House Spokesman Defends President Trump's Supreme Court Nominee


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It is my honor and privilege to announce that I will nominate Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.



With those words, President Trump introduced the man who could help change the face of the Supreme Court for at least a generation. Kavanaugh, who currently sits on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, was already on Capitol Hill today meeting with some of the senators who will oversee his confirmation to the seat of retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. Staff on Capitol Hill have begun the task of combing through his 300-some judicial opinions.


Kavanaugh has spent nearly his entire career in Washington where he served as staff secretary to President George W. Bush. And before that, he worked under Ken Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton. To explain why the Trump administration ultimately chose Kavanaugh, we're joined by Raj Shah, a deputy press secretary for the White House. Welcome.

RAJ SHAH: Ailsa, thanks a lot for having me on.

CHANG: So why was Brett Kavanaugh the winner?

SHAH: Well, Brett Kavanaugh was, you know, by many standards the most qualified person to be selected for the Supreme Court and frankly a generation. He's influential. He has a clear and consistent record. And he has got both the academic and judicial chops to stand on the highest court. So I think the president made a very inspired choice.

CHANG: Did the White House choose Kavanaugh because of its confidence that he would be willing to overturn Roe v. Wade?

SHAH: No, the president didn't ask Judge Kavanaugh about any specific issues. He just talked to the judge about his philosophy, about his overall approach to the law. And his credentials really speaks for themselves. The President was pretty clear from early on in the campaign that he wanted judges that would follow the law and make judicial decisions based on the letter and the intent of the law and not...

CHANG: Are you saying then...

SHAH: ...For policy or political...

CHANG: Are saying that Kavanaugh's views on abortion were not part of the calculation in choosing him?

SHAH: Yeah, I'm saying that Kavanaugh's views on any particular issues were not part of the decision making, but his overall approach to the law and the Constitution was central to this decision.

CHANG: Let me play a piece of tape for you. This is from the 2016 campaign. This is President Trump during a debate talking to Fox News' Chris Wallace.


CHRIS WALLACE: Do you want to see the court overturn Roe v. Wade?

TRUMP: Well, if we put another two or perhaps three justices on, that's really what's going to be - that's - will happen. And that'll happen automatically in my opinion because I am putting pro-life justices on the court.

CHANG: President Trump promised throughout the campaign that he would appoint pro-life justices to the court. So does he have confidence that Kavanaugh is pro-life?

SHAH: The president released a list during the campaign. He expanded that list during the campaign and expanded it last year, in which he added Judge Kavanaugh to a list of 25 highly qualified individuals who have both the academic and judicial credentials to serve on the Supreme Court.

CHANG: And who were chosen by conservative organizations in part because...

SHAH: They were chosen by the president.

CHANG: ...Of their views on abortion.

SHAH: They were not chosen by any outside organization. Obviously groups and other individuals had input, but this is the president's list and the president's selection. And he chose both Justice Gorsuch...

CHANG: But Raj, Raj...

SHAH: ...And now judge - yes?

CHANG: How do you square the promise President Trump made back in 2016 when he was running to appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court with his claim now that he didn't even talk about abortion when meeting with potential nominees?

SHAH: Yeah, during the campaign - and you can find the clips as well - the president said he would not apply specific litmus tests to nominees. He did not ask Brett Kavanaugh specifically about that issue or any other as I've stated repeatedly.

CHANG: Even though he promised to appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court.

SHAH: Yeah, I think I've said it very clearly and repeatedly now, and you keep kind of hammering on the same point. I've been pretty clear. The president's been pretty clear. He was very clear in his announcement last night. He did not ask Judge Kavanaugh or Justice Gorsuch, by the way, about any specific issues or rulings.

CHANG: That said, Judge Kavanaugh has a long record both in...

SHAH: Of course.

CHANG: ...His judicial opinions, his time with - working under President George W. Bush, his academic writings. And I'd like to ask about one particular piece of academic writing. He has argued that sitting presidents should be protected from criminal investigations because those investigations can distract from the duties of the job. How much did that viewpoint influence the White House's decision to nominate Kavanaugh?

SHAH: It did not. Again, the judge has hundreds of rulings and opinions. In 2009 - I think is the writing that you're citing...

CHANG: Right, from the Minnesota Law Review.

SHAH: ...Endorsed - he endorsed legislation that would basically alter the powers of the independent counsel and offered a personal view but not a constitutional or legal understanding of, you know, how a criminal proceeding should...

CHANG: Sure, but it's a piece of writing...

SHAH: ...Apply to a president of the United States.

CHANG: ...That speaks directly to President Trump's current situation. Special counsel Robert Mueller has asked the president to sit down for interviews for this investigation into Russia. So how much did the White House consider Judge Kavanaugh's views on how criminal investigations can impede a president trying to carry out the duties of the office?

SHAH: Not a lot. The...

CHANG: Not a lot, but it was considered.

SHAH: No. I'm saying that anything in his public record was reviewed by attorneys who were vetting a number of potential candidates. But there are rulings in which Judge Kavanaugh has expanded executive power. There are rulings in which he has reduced executive power. The consistent strain here is a judge who interprets the law as it was written and the Constitution as it was written and intended.

CHANG: I want to turn now to the heated confirmation battle that's sure to come in the Senate. As we both keep mentioning, Judge Kavanaugh has an extensive record. Does his long paper trail give Democrats an opportunity to slow down the confirmation process?

SHAH: Well, I think Democrats are going to try to delay no matter what, no matter who we selected. And they're going to, you know, search for any reason under the sun. I think that if they try to delay because...

CHANG: But even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly urged the White House not to pick Kavanaugh precisely because he had such a long record. Are you confident that the White House is aware of everything contained in the millions of pages that are going to be produced to the Senate in the coming weeks?

SHAH: I am confident that as much - as more information and more exposure is given to Brett Kavanaugh, the American people, the United States Senate is going to walk away as impressed as the White House has been. Judge Kavanaugh is the real deal. He is highly influential. He is the judge that other judges turn to. And we think that that record will speak for itself, and he will be able to convince a lot of members of the Senate to support his confirmation.

CHANG: All right, Raj Shah is a White House spokesman. Thanks very much for joining us.

SHAH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.