Some recent polls have shown a weakening in support for Trump among evangelicals, who have long been among the president’s strongest supporters. But Roberts’s role in cases advancing both gay and abortion rights is now seen in the White House as an opening to shore up that part of Trump’s political base.
Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said there is frustration and disappointment in evangelical ranks about Roberts’s rulings. But he said he and others are not going to walk away from Trump.
“Voters of faith know that that project to shift the court in a more conservative direction is on the 5-yard line and it’s a strategic imperative to get President Trump reelected,” Reed said. “The Louisiana decision has brought the life issue into fuller relief and reminded us why we have to give the president the chance to nominate more justices.”
In a remarkable stretch of decisions over the past two weeks, Roberts has infuriated conservatives and the Trump administration by finding that federal anti-discrimination law protects gay, bisexual and transgender workers and stopping the president from ending the federal program that protects undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children.
In Monday’s decision striking down a restrictive Louisiana abortion law, Roberts said the court’s allegiance to honoring its past decisions meant striking down a law almost identical to one in Texas that the court said in 2016 was unconstitutional.
Still, even as the White House works to reassure conservatives, it faces challenges in containing the rage over the George W. Bush appointee’s alignment with liberal colleagues and ensuring that his rulings do not depress the president’s core voters.
“John G. Roberts Jr. has stabbed the American people in the back more than Norman Bates and ‘swings’ more than Hugh Hefner in his heyday,” former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, an evangelical leader, tweeted on Tuesday, adding that Roberts should “Resign Now.”
Roberts is not alone in facing conservatives’ wrath. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, and Roberts joined the court’s liberals in the 6-to-3 ruling that a landmark federal civil rights law from the 1960s protects gay and transgender workers.
Gorsuch’s move to chart his own course is particularly painful for some conservatives, given that he was vetted for Trump by a small network of conservative legal scholars, including leaders of the Federalist Society, who offered public assurances about him.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a former Supreme Court clerk, said the “Republican vetting process” should be revamped before the next vacancy, with more emphasis on input by social conservatives.
“This term has been shell shocking for religious conservatives in particular,” Hawley said. “A lot of them are extremely upset and depressed about it, and rightly so.” He added, “We’ve got to rethink how we vet and select the justices. . . . Religious conservatives need to be more involved and their voices heard.”
Inside the White House, officials are working to hold conservatives together and to remind them of Trump’s track record on the federal judiciary, arguing that the scope of the president’s efforts should outweigh any anger at Roberts and others on the court.
Vice President Pence, a conservative who has spent his career building bonds with evangelicals, is at the center of that outreach, according to two conservative activists in frequent contact with the White House.
On Monday, Pence did not swipe at Roberts directly, but he did tweet that “after today’s disappointing decision by SCOTUS, one thing is clear: We need more Conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.” Pence also spoke Monday with the Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion group whose leader has criticized Roberts as caving to “social pressures” that cause “intellectual and moral collapse.”
One of Pence’s aides, veteran conservative organizer Paul Teller, is communicating daily with right-wing groups and “bucking them up, staying positive, and sending us talking points,” one of the conservative activists said.
There also are ongoing discussions between Trump advisers and conservative leaders about the possibility of a Supreme Court vacancy in the coming months — a tantalizing prospect for Republicans who value the court above all other issues and are eager to have Trump have one more opportunity to nominate a justice before the election.
Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative appointed by George H.W. Bush, is privately seen by Trump’s aides as the most likely to retire this year. While Thomas has not given any indication of doing so, the White House and Senate Republicans are quietly preparing for a possible opening, according to a White House official and two outside Trump political advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.
“If Thomas goes, you’ve got a lot of people around this process ready to support Thapar — and McConnell ready to move his favorite through,” said one of the outside Trump political advisers, referring to Judge Amul R. Thapar of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.
Thapar, 51, is the son of Indian immigrants and has been touted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as a prime candidate. He previously served as a U.S. attorney and federal district court judge in Kentucky — and was on Trump’s shortlist in 2018 when Justice Anthony M. Kennedy retired from the bench.
Other conservatives remain hopeful that Judge Amy Coney Barrett, 48, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, will be nominated by Trump if there is a vacancy. But Barrett’s past membership in groups that have promoted antiabortion views could make her harder to confirm in campaign season, the outside advisers said.
Several Trump advisers and the White House official said Coney Barrett is more likely to be nominated in the event that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Bill Clinton appointee, steps down. One of the Trump advisers said, encouragingly, that Coney Barrett would cause a “culture war.”
McConnell has publicly stated that he would push to confirm another Trump nominee.
“Oh, we’d fill it,” McConnell said in May when asked at a Kentucky event about whether he would fill a vacancy this year. That remark sparked outrage and cries of hypocrisy among Democrats since McConnell blocked Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court in 2016, insisting the nomination should wait until after that year’s presidential election.
The White House official said Trump is likely to update and extend his public shortlist for the Supreme Court before the election as a way of reminding conservatives of his commitment to their cause.
For Trump, keeping conservatives who focus on the court engaged and upbeat about him is of paramount importance as he faces off against former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Biden has pledged to nominate a black woman for the Supreme Court, should he win the White House.
Top Democrats are urging their own activists to remain vigilant and keep pace with conservatives.
“The ruling on the Louisiana law is no cause for complacency,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. “There will be more efforts by state legislatures to chip away at reproductive rights, and this week’s majority could be lost if Trump is reelected.”
Whether Roberts’s rulings end up driving up GOP turnout or not, it is clear that anger over the chief justice is unlikely to abate soon.
“If it were up to me, I’d start impeachment proceedings” against Roberts, American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally, told Fox News on Tuesday. “What he’s done on Obamacare twice and what he has done here on abortion is act like a left-wing politician. If he’s not going to be impeached, he ought to resign and run for Congress.”
On the campaign trail in Tulsa on June 20, Trump told his rally crowd, “Justice Gorsuch, Justice Kavanaugh, they’re great. They’re great. We have two and we could get a few more. Yeah. We could get a few.”
When asked last week, in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, whether Roberts is “worse” than past GOP-nominated justices that have distressed conservatives, such as Kennedy, Trump said, ‘So far, we’re not doing so well. It says, look, you’ve had a lot of losses with a court that was supposed to be in our favor.”
But, Trump added, the rulings show that it is necessary for Republicans to win this year to avoid having a “radical left group of judges” on the court.
Trump’s campaign advisers said the campaign will continue to make that point to Trump’s supporters this summer.
“President Trump has an unsurpassed record of appointing 200 solid, conservative judges and he will continue to do so,” Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, said in a statement. “Joe Biden cannot stand up to the radical left and would appoint liberal judges who would legislate from the bench. It would be a disaster for conservatives.”
The Senate last week confirmed Trump’s 200th judicial nominee, a milestone that Trump and McConnell have made a keystone of their political legacies.
Working to contain conservative anger over the court is hardly unusual for a Republican president. Harriet Miers, who was put forward by George W. Bush, withdrew from consideration in 2005 when Republicans objected to her nomination, saying she was insufficiently conservative. Retired justice David H. Souter was appointed by George H.W. Bush but became a target of conservative ire after he reliably voted with the liberal bloc on the court in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“Conservative activists and Trump supporters don’t blame Trump for it. It just seems to be a pattern of bad luck for conservatives. We had it with Souter, and I guess we’re getting it with Roberts, if these last few decisions are an indication,” said former senator Bob Smith (R-N.H.).
Robert Barnes and Michael Scherer contributed to this report.