Hundreds of conservative and libertarian attorneys sung President Trump’s praises Thursday night at an annual gathering of the Federalist Society, praising him for successfully pushing more federal judges through the Senate in his first two years than any recent president.
Trump was not present, but attendees included Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has made it a focus to transform the judiciary, and former White House counsel Donald McGahn, who recommended to Trump that he nominate Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court.
“Confirmation is a political decision based on who controls the Senate,” McConnell told those gathered. “My goal is to confirm as many circuit judges as possible."
As of now, the Senate has confirmed 29 circuit judges. More will be confirmed before the end of the current Congress, McConnell said.
While media attention has largely focused on Trump’s Supreme Court appointees, he came into the presidency with an uncommon number of vacancies for judges to federal appeals courts. The Republican-led Senate held up numerous federal bench appointments made by the Obama administration, including that of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
According to the Heritage Foundation’s Judicial Tracker, as of Nov. 13, in his second year in office, Trump had 84 appointments, Obama had 43 appointments, George W. Bush had 80 and George H.W. Bush had 71.
The lifetime appointments fulfill Trump’s campaign promise to remake the federal judiciary by packing the courts with conservative judges. The nominations were aided by the Republican-controlled Senate and changes in chamber rules that call for a simple majority in the confirmation of federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, instead of the 60 votes required previously.
Thursday’s black-tie affair, held at Washington’s Union Station, came 10 days after midterm election results cemented a larger Republican majority in the Senate. With an enhanced majority, Trump will be able to deepen his imprint on the federal judiciary and the Senate will be able to continue confirmations for two more years.
“Trump received nine of 10 Republican votes,” McConnell said, praising Trump’s “political instinct” to create and publicize a list of possible Supreme Court nominees during his 2016 campaign for the presidency.
The list — brainstormed by McGahn and Federalist Society executive vice president Leonard Leo — was composed primarily of Federalist Society members.
The single biggest reason Republicans who had reservations about Trump as their nominee ultimately voted for him was “the list,” McConnell said, adding that “it was extremely reassuring to my members.”
When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in early 2016, McGahn was with Trump for a Republican primary debate in South Carolina.
The first question posed by moderator John Dickerson was about potential replacements for Scalia. Without pause, Trump mentioned William H. Pryor and Diane S. Sykes, two conservative U.S. Court of Appeals judges with polarizing positions on polemic topics, including abortion and gay rights.
That was the beginning of “the list,” McGahn said at Thursday’s gathering. Soon thereafter, at a news conference in late March 2016, Trump said, “I’m going to submit a list of justices, potential justices of the United States Supreme Court that I will appoint, from the list — I won’t go beyond that list.”
The names went public after the Indiana primary two months later, when Trump became the presumptive party nominee.
According to Alliance for Justice, 83 percent of Trump’s nominees confirmed as circuit judges are members of the Federalist Society, which was founded during the Reagan administration and advocates for “originalist” and “textualist” interpretations of the Constitution. Ninety percent of those whose nominations are pending are Society members, too.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), recipient of the legal organization’s public service award, called himself “one of the original Federalists.” Admittedly, he was skeptical of the organization — at first, viewing it as “a bunch of stuffy white guys getting together to talk about the Constitution.”
Now, he said, “The judiciary has no greater friend than the Federalist Society.”
Hatch concluded his acceptance remarks by addressing accusations that Trump outsourced his judicial selection process to the Federalist Society.
As the judiciary will determine the future of free speech, the administrative state and free liberty, he said, “keep those judges coming.”
Robert Barnes contributed to this report.