With Supreme Court vacancy, Trump’s 2016 Mar-a-Lago pledge again looms large

Then-candidate Donald Trump pledging to list potential Supreme Court nominees to assuage conservatives at the 2016 Palm Beach County GOP Lincoln Day dinner at Mar-a-Lago. (Daniel Owen / The Palm Beach Post)

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy‘s retirement gives President Donald Trump another high-court nomination and underscores the importance of a pledge Trump made at Mar-a-Lago as a candidate in 2016.

Trump was the clear front runner for the Republican presidential nomination when the Palm Beach County GOP rented Mar-a-Lago’s Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom for its March 20, 2016 Lincoln Day dinner. But Trump still faced significant skepticism from many conservatives, particularly over his apparent lack of a coherent judicial philosophy.  That fueled Republican concerns that some portion of the right might vote for minor-party candidates or sit out the 2016 election.

So Trump, speaking to local Republicans but with the national media watching, acknowledged his doubters and promised that he would release a list of “great conservative judges” that he would appoint to the Supreme Court as president.

“I am going to give a list of either 5 or 10 judges that I will pick — 100 percent pick — that I will put in for nomination. Because some of the people that are against me say, ‘We don’t know if he’s going to pick the right judges,’ ‘Supposing he picks a liberal judge’ or ‘Supposing he picks a pro-choice judge,’ ” Trump said at the time.

Collaborating with the conservative Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation, Trump’s campaign eventually listed 21 potential court picks — including eventual Trump nominee and Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Trump reaffirmed the importance of the Mar-a-Lago pledge today, telling reporters in the Oval Office that his choice to replace Kennedy “will be somebody from that list.”

Two years ago, the list was crucial in preventing massive conservative defections from Trump, who often brought up the Supreme Court when the GOP coalition appeared restless.

“We have a war to win against a very crooked politician named Hillary Clinton, OK?” Trump pleaded at a June 2016 rally in Tampa.  “The Republican Party really should get their act together, they have to come together. We’ve got to win. And if for no other reason, the Supreme Court, remember that.”

Leading “Never Trump” figure Rick Wilson, who tried in 2016 to get conservatives to support independent candidate Evan McMullin for president, conceded in a 2017 interview that Trump’s Supreme Court pledge hampered his efforts

“The Supreme Court was a value-added for Donald Trump that turned skeptical Republicans into at least tolerant Republicans of Trump. It was something we saw turn up in focus groups over and over and over again,” Wilson said shortly after Trump took office. “The Supreme Court was the unspoken and spoken selling proposition for Donald Trump well beyond any other factor for base Republican voters.”