While Barrett, a former clerk for former Justice Antonin Scalia and a favorite of social conservatives, was widely expected to be the president’s pick, Trump still had even some of his own supporters on-edge waiting for a last-minute twist.
“There’s an X factor that always exists with President Trump — even the people closest to him don’t always know for certain,” said former White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
Trump tried to extend the suspense a little longer on Friday night, even as press releases were fired off from lawmakers and special interest groups praising or denouncing the decision.
“You're going to find out tomorrow” if it’s Barrett, he told reporters as reports of her expected nomination started proliferating. “I haven’t said it was her, but she is outstanding.”
One person close to the process said it felt like momentum was fading the longer the president waited to name his pick, and it was allowing Democrats to get a head start on playing offense.
With news of Trump’s decision already out, Saturday’s event in the Rose Garden of the White House will be more of a formality, serving as the official launch of an aggressive campaign by Republicans to get Barrett confirmed before the November election.
Republican lawmakers, Cabinet members and prominent conservative leaders have been invited to attend, along with Barrett’s family, who will be flying in from South Bend, Ind. A Catholic contingency is also expected, as Barrett, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame Law School, is deeply religious.
It was unusual for the White House to let the news leak, especially because the president relishes the opportunity to keep people guessing up until the very last minute. The element of surprise has been a hallmark of Trump’s presidency, from Supreme Court nominations to off-the-cuff invitations to meet with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un.
But the announcement of Trump’s third pick for the Supreme Court has been filled with less of the made-for-TV drama than there was for Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
With Gorsuch, Trump turned the decision making process into a guessing game spectacle, parading contenders to the White House. Reporters at one point went into a tizzy after one of the candidates was spotted driving to Washington, D.C. (who said he was simply meeting a friend). And with Kavanaugh, Trump initially stepped out to the East Room podium by himself, drawing out the drama of his decision until the moment he read Kavanaugh’s name.
Still, the president found a way to keep up a little mystery as he deliberated this week. One person close to the White House argued there have been fewer leaks than normal about Trump’s conversations and meetings, a rare feat in a West Wing known for letting details spill out.
While Barrett was a clear frontrunner from the beginning, allies of the president began pushing for Barbara Lagoa, a judge from the must-win state of Florida. The president did not meet with Lagoa, although he traveled to the Sunshine State on Friday. His comments about interviewing candidates seemed to suggest he had made up his mind early on — he conceded during the week he had no current plans to meet with Lagoa.
Multiple people close to the president felt certain that in the end, Barrett would be chosen — especially after she impressed Trump when they met at the White House early in the week.
Saturday’s announcement is expected to have the usual television trappings of a Supreme Court announcement, with a packed audience in the Rose Garden and coverage from all the news networks. But its timing — 5:00 p.m. on a weekend — might not equate to primetime ratings for the president and his pick.
Trump, who is obsessed with TV ratings and has weekly numbers printed out for him by White House aides, has complained about Saturday being the “Death Valley in TV.”
The odd scheduling for his Supreme Court announcement — which in the past has occurred during weekday primetime hours — was dictated by the memorial service schedule for former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last week, and his looming debate on Tuesday with Democratic rival Joe Biden. Trump visited the Supreme Court on Thursday to pay respects to Ginsburg and a memorial service was held for the late justice in the U.S. Capitol on Friday.
The set up for the event on Saturday is expected to be similar to the announcements for Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, although held in a different location at the White House.
Behind the scenes, efforts are underway to prepare for the media frenzy that will swirl around Barrett. Statements and press releases touting Barrett as the pick were prepared in advance, and talking points were sent out to surrogates who might appear on television to talk about the Supreme Court nomination.
A former senior White House official said the key for Republicans is to stay “completely aligned,” especially in the Senate, which will vote on Barrett’s nomination.
“The public polling isn’t going to shift much, and fellow senators need to see each other out there driving the message and on the Sunday shows,” the former official said.
In the coming weeks, it is expected that Barrett will start doing mock hearings to prepare for her Senate hearing. In 2018, Kavanaugh had half a dozen prep sessions with people playing different Senators and went through piles of material to develop fluency on the judicial history around hot button issues.
It’s not expected that Barrett will have a sherpa to guide her through meetings on Capitol Hill with Senators, as Gorsuch and Kavanaugh did. While White House counsel Pat Cipollone was not around during the past two confirmation hearings, he developed close relationships with many senators through the impeachment hearings. Cipollone and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows will continue to lead the process, a White House official said.
With only 39 days until the election, the former official said, “every day matters now."