White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah on Tuesday declined multiple opportunities to deny a report that President Donald Trump struck an undisclosed agreement with outgoing Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy over replacing him with Brett Kavanaugh—Kennedy's former law clerk.
After Trump revealed Monday night that he had selected Kavanaugh—who has been on the public potential nominee list since November—Shah was repeatedly asked, during an interview with CNN early Tuesday, whether Kennedy and Trump had discussed Kavanaugh as a replacement prior to the outgoing justice's retirement annoucement nearly two weeks ago.
Shah confirmed that Trump met with the justice at the White House on the day he announced his retirement, but asked whether Kennedy expressed support for Kavanaugh before that meeting, said, "I'll allow Justice Kennedy to speak for himself."
Given yet another chance to respond to reporting that Kennedy may have spoken to someone inside or connected to the White House about his support for Kavanaugh months ago, Shah said, "I'm not gonna read out private conversations that Justice Kennedy had with either members of the White House or the president."
Ahead of Shah's CNN interview on Tuesday morning, NBC News Capitol Hill reporter Leigh Ann Caldwell had detailed in a series of tweets that, according to an unnamed source, "the five names Trump added to his list of Federalist Approved judges last November was to get Kavanaugh on that list. The other four names were considered cover, per source. In other words: the decision has been baked for a while."
While that tweet remains online, Caldwell later deleted another early morning tweet—which had said, in part, "once Kennedy received assurances that it would be Kavanaugh, his former law clerk, Kennedy felt comfortable retiring"—and offered the following clarification:
Kavanaugh was the only one who was thought conservative enough to consider, I’m told. They added Kavanaugh – and 4 other names - to the public Federalist list that Trump would choose from in November. We are continuing to report this story. (2/2)
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— Leigh Ann Caldwell (@LACaldwellDC) July 10, 2018
Caldwell's tweets followed a report from Politico late Monday that, according to administration officials, "Trump was taken with Kavanaugh even before his conversation with Kennedy" on the day of his retirement announcement, "but Kennedy, in leaving the impression with Trump that Kavanaugh would be a great candidate for the job, helped the president make up his mind."
Politico noted that Trump "has told people that the opportunity to have two Supreme Court nominees during his first 18 months in office is historic, giving him the chance to reshape the direction of the courts and fulfill a major campaign promise," and that Kennedy's seat "seemed destined to go to Kavanaugh, thanks in part to the glowing review of Kennedy, whose son, Justin, knows Donald Trump Jr. through New York real estate circles."
"For a White House that had been taking the pulse of the court through the deep network of Kennedy law clerks, his retirement had long been on their wish list," the report continued. "And a year after Trump chose [Neil] Gorsuch to serve with his mentor, he picked another ex-Kennedy aide to join him on the high court, a move that will shape how the president and the retired justice are remembered."
Responding to the nomination, a Republican close to the White House told Politico that the president "is very transactional in a lot of ways—as long as it's fairly immediate to the benefit for him. ...The fact that Kennedy gave him that, he was flattered and thrilled by it."