With barely four days to go before President Trump makes official his choice to succeed Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, the favorite remains D.C. Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh has an advantage because he has the most consistent conservative judicial track record of the known candidates — one that mirrors Trump's views on several key issues, including immigration, trade deals, abortion and gun rights, according to two sources familiar with the current White House selection.
The president's key legal advisors, White House Counsel Don McGahn and Federalist Society chief Leonard Leo, are also said to be favorable to Kavanaugh. They have argued that he holds two critical criteria for nomination: a Trump-like judicial record and the ability to get confirmed by a razor-thin GOP-controlled Senate.
Holding frontrunner status can be dangerous, however. Kavanaugh has become the target of some conservative groups, including a Daily Caller report that included anonymous sources describing him as close to the Bush family.
"Kavanaugh is Jeb Bush's pick for the Supreme Court," The Daily Caller cited one "source" and noted that he worked as associate counsel to President George W. Bush.
But a legal source familiar with Kavanaugh and his background has been surprised by these claims. He says Kavanaugh hasn't spoken to Jeb Bush in more than a decade.
He adds that Kavanaugh came out of the era of Reagan judicial appointees, including Justice Anthony Kennedy and former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
His long record of court opinions show Kavanaugh is no "Bushie" — his rulings have been said to be more like Scalia than Kennedy.
For example, Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion in Heller v. District of Columbia, which unapologetically embraced the Second Amendment and argued that judges should not re-interpret the founders' original intent.
His ruling is considered the most pro-Second Amendment opinion of any court of appeals opinion, one that has been cited repeatedly by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
In another case, American Meat Inst. v. USDA, Kavanaugh upheld federal requirements that foreign manufacturers had to label country-of-origin on their products, rules that support American manufacturers, farmers and jobs.
Kavanaugh, his supporters say, took a risky position to become Starr's associate counsel in the Whitewater probe, and his efforts there led to the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
Ed Meese, President Reagan's Attorney General and one of his closest associates, has known Kavanaugh for decades and confirmed he has been a solid Reaganite as a judge.
"I know him quite well," Meese told Newsmax, "and I am impressed with Judge Kavanaugh and his fidelity to the Constitution, as shown in more than 300 opinions."
Other social conservatives claim Kavanaugh has been weak on abortion. But his record paints a different picture.
"On the vital issues of protecting religious liberty and enforcing restrictions on abortion," Sarah Pitlyk, counsel to the Thomas Moore Society, wrote in National Review, "no court-of-appeals judge in the nation has a stronger, more consistent record than Judge Brett Kavanaugh. On these issues, as on so many others, he has fought for his principles and stood firm against pressure. He would do the same on the Supreme Court."
The Thomas Moore Society is a national, pro-life public interest law organization.
Kavanaugh, 53, was one of five prospective candidates for the high court interviewed by Trump earlier this week. Also interviewed at the White House Monday were Kavanaugh's fellow Appellate Judges Amy Coney Barrett (7th Circuit), Amul Thapar (6th Circuit), and Ray Kethledge (6th Circuit). On Tuesday, Trump conducted a telephone interview with Utah's Republican Sen. Mike Lee.
According to several accounts, Trump was impressed with Kavanaugh's education and history of published articles on complex legal matters—criteria that are important to the President in selecting judicial nominees.
One noticeable and much-discussed article by Kavanaugh in 2009 seemed to foresee the conflict today between the President and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.
Writing that year in the Minnesota Law Review, the jurist argued that presidents should be free from "time-consuming and distracting" lawsuits and investigations, which "would ill serve the public interest, especially in times of financial or national security crisis."
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