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Biden interviews at least three Supreme Court contenders as announcement nears

As the president enters the final stages of his Supreme Court selection process, the White House has begun advising allies on how to push back against expected attacks

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson listens to arguments in December 2019 as high school students observe a reenactment of a landmark Supreme Court case. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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President Biden is in the final stages of making his first nomination to the Supreme Court — having completed interviews with at least three leading contenders — and West Wing officials have begun advising outside allies on how to defend the nominee against potential attacks, according to people briefed on the process.

One of the interviews was with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who has sat on the federal bench for nine years and has a background as a public defender, according to one of the people. Another was with Judge J. Michelle Childs, a federal judge in South Carolina who is a favorite of House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), an influential Biden ally. Neither interview had been previously reported. Biden also interviewed Leondra Kruger, a justice on the California Supreme Court, according to two other people briefed on the process.

The people, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to more openly discuss a sensitive topic, did not rule out that Biden may have also interviewed other potential nominees. The White House declined to comment. CNN first reported that Biden met with Kruger.

With a rollout coming as soon as this week, West Wing officials have begun telling supporters to prepare for an imminent announcement.

“We’re close,” Cedric L. Richmond, the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, said on a Sunday night video conference with members of an organization called Win With Black Women, according to a person with direct knowledge of the private conversation. He urged those taking part in the conversation to “keep protecting” the potential nominees against possible attacks on their records.

Potential pick Ketanji Brown Jackson would make history as first federal public defender on Supreme Court

Richmond said the White House would probably inform only a few close allies and rely on them to spread the word once a decision is made and an announcement is at hand. Richmond also said the White House plans to distribute talking points to supporters on how to respond to expected criticism against the nominee, who Biden has said will be a Black woman.

“We know what some of the attacks are going to be: not qualified, affirmative action pick,” Richmond told the group. “Well, it wasn’t ‘affirmative action pick’ when we just picked friends, White friends of the president, for all these decades. You know, it was just patronage or whatever they wanted to call it.”

President Biden is committed to his campaign promise to name the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. Here’s a list of his top contenders. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

White House officials said Biden is on pace to meet his self-imposed deadline of announcing his pick by the end of February and maintained that no decision had been made.

“The President has not chosen a nominee, nor has the administration been indicating in any capacity that a particular candidate should be expected,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement Tuesday. “He continues to evaluate eminently qualified individuals.”

But three of the people briefed on the selection process said they expected Biden would select Jackson, who emerged as a front-runner soon after Justice Stephen G. Breyer announced his retirement in late January. Others painted a picture of a decision that was more fluid.

Jackson saw impact of tough drug sentence firsthand

Breyer’s retirement will not take effect until this summer, at the conclusion of the Supreme Court’s current term, and only if a successor has been confirmed.

Biden’s vow to nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court would fulfill a promise he made as a candidate. He has vetted at least three candidates for the seat and considered several others, according to people familiar with the process.

Among them are Jackson, who was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last year and is a former Breyer clerk; Childs, who has won praise from Republicans in her home state of South Carolina; and Kruger, who has represented the federal government before the Supreme Court and is also a former clerk there.

The president has said he will pick a nominee by the end of this month, giving him a week to meet the deadline he announced publicly at a difficult moment in his presidency. He is also navigating a growing crisis in Ukraine, the complex politics of the pandemic and other challenges. His approval rating is mired in negative territory, and his party is bracing for a backlash in the midterm elections.

Officials and others close to the process stressed that until an announcement was made, changes in the trajectory of the search for a nominee were possible. Several cautioned against drawing any conclusions before that time.

However, the appeal of Jackson has been obvious to her champions from the get-go. She has won wide praise from Democrats and was confirmed with the support of three Republican senators last year — a notable matter in a Senate that is bitterly divided 50-50 between the parties, although there is no guarantee the same GOP senators would back Jackson for the nation’s highest court. Jackson would also make history by being the first federal public defender to become a Supreme Court justice.

In recent weeks, the winnowing has been opaque to even some of Biden’s closest allies on Capitol Hill. Often, White House spokespeople have declined to answer even basic questions about where the president and his team stood.

But behind the scenes, White House officials are preparing allies for a rollout soon.

“When we’re going to have to make some calls right when the president makes his mind up, before he announces it to the public, the unfortunate part is we won’t have the ability to call each and everybody on this phone,” said Richmond during the Sunday video conference. “And so what I would ask for is just the latitude and you all give us the wiggle room to maybe just call two or three people that can disseminate this widely.”

Clyburn, whose influence on Biden has been apparent ever since he helped turn around Biden’s struggling campaign with a coveted endorsement ahead of the South Carolina presidential primaries, has waged a public campaign for Childs. He said in an interview on Monday that “no one has told me” that Biden has made a decision.

The South Carolina congressman said that he spoke with Richmond twice on Sunday but that they did not discuss the Supreme Court. Richmond and Clyburn are close from their days serving together in the House.

Clyburn said he had a guess about who Biden would pick, but when pressed on it, he said he would opt to keep it to himself.

“I’m not going to share that with you,” Clyburn said.