WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
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.
With the Senate narrowly divided, 51-49, in favor of Republicans, Trump's announcement will launch a contentious confirmation process as Republicans seek to shift the court to the right and Democrats strive to block the effort. Any GOP defections could begin to doom a nominee.
Tapping into Trump's understanding of the importance of the choice, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told the president this week that nominating someone hostile to abortion access, or the 2010 health care law, would tarnish his legacy.
Schumer told Trump that such a choice would be "cataclysmic" and create more division than the country has seen in years, according to a person familiar with the conversation who said Trump called Schumer on Tuesday.
The senator also told the president he could unify the country by nominating Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's choice for the Supreme Court who was blocked by Republicans in 2016.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday at an event in Louisville that he, too, has been talking to the president about the search and believes "the president will make a very high-quality appointment."
McConnell acknowledged that his fellow Kentuckian, Judge Amul Thapar, is a finalist, but noted, "The competition at this level is pretty intense."
Working closely with a White House team and consulting with lawmakers and outside advisers, Trump has spent the week deliberating on the choice. He conducted interviews Monday and Tuesday. He could still consider others in the mix. He's still taking input, making calls to Capitol Hill, the official said.
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 and spoke on condition of anonymity Wednesday to describe the private search process.
Trump is choosing his nominee from a list of 25 candidates vetted by conservative groups. Earlier in the week, he spoke with seven of them.
The president also spoke by phone with Lee, the senator from Utah, on Monday. The White House did not characterize that call as an interview, and Lee is not viewed as a top prospect.
But Lee has consistent support among conservative and libertarian activists, including some Republicans who worry about a nominee not upholding their principles and who say the Utah senator could bring more certainty.
More than two dozen conservatives, including Paul, wealthy GOP donor Rebekah Mercer and several tea party leaders, signed a letter backing Lee as having a "proven record."
Cruz advocated for Lee on Thursday in a Fox News op-ed warning Trump not to repeat "mistakes" of past Republican presidents by picking a Supreme Court nominee who turns out to be insufficiently conservative.
Cruz said President George H.W. Bush's selection of liberal David Souter was "one of the most consequential errors of his presidency." He also pointed to former justices William Brennan, John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun, the latter of whom wrote the Roe v. Wade decision that established a woman's right to abortion. All three were nominated by Republican presidents.
Lee, he said, would be a "sure thing."
Paul, the Kentucky senator, has told colleagues he may not vote for Kavanaugh if the judge is nominated, citing Kavanaugh's role during President George W. Bush's administration on cases involving executive privilege and the disclosure of documents to Congress, said a person familiar with Paul's conversations who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Some conservatives have pointed to Kethledge as a potential justice in the mold of Neil Gorsuch, Trump's first Supreme Court nominee last year. Both Kethledge and Gorsuch once served Kennedy as law clerks, as did Kavanaugh. Kethledge, a Michigan Law graduate, would add academic diversity to a court steeped in the Ivy League.
Since Trump said his short list includes at least two women, speculation has focused on Barrett, a former law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia and a longtime Notre Dame Law School professor who serves on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Conservative groups rallied around Barrett after her confirmation hearing last year featured questioning from Democrats over how her Roman Catholic faith would affect her decisions.
Trump's choice to replace Kennedy — a swing vote on the nine-member court — has the potential to remake the court for a generation as part of precedent-shattering decisions. Recognizing the stakes, many Democrats have lined up in opposition to any Trump pick.
One group aligned with Democrats began running ads Thursday in the home states of Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, urging them to hold firm in their support of access to abortion services.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Darlene Superville, Ken Thomas and Alan Fram in Washington and Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.