First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Trump’s court pick delivers on promise to conservatives
There was a reason why the Trump White House wanted to move up its Supreme Court pick from the previously scheduled Thursday announcement to last night. After a rocky and contentious first week and a half on the job, President Trump tapping Neil Gorsuch to serve on the nation’s highest court was his best moment since the inauguration in unifying the Republican Party. “Judge Gorsuch is probably the best pick he could have made,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has had no qualms in criticizing Trump over the travel ban or Russia. The pick of Gorsuch -- who has been compared to Antonin Scalia -- represents Trump delivering on a promise to Republicans, especially those who held their noses on Election Day, that he would put a conservative on the Supreme Court (though Gorsuch wasn’t on the initial list of SCOTUS picks Trump released last May). Yet it also says something about the last two weeks -- which have included fights over crowd sizes, discredited allegations of voter fraud, the immigration/travel ban, and the firing of the acting attorney general -- that Trump needed a Supreme Court pick to change the subject. Indeed, the last 12 hours might be the most normal so far of the Trump presidency.
Yet Trump has already changed the subject back to the travel ban
But Trump has ALREADY changed the subject. “Everybody is arguing whether or not it is a BAN. Call it what you want, it is about keeping bad people (with bad intentions) out of country!” he tweeted about his immigration/travel ban. Trump’s tweet undercuts White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who went out of his way to say it wasn’t a ban (despite plenty of evidence of Team Trump using the term).
Gorsuch’s confirmation should be easy. But the GOP hasn’t laid the groundwork to make this easy
Back to Gorsuch… In normal times, his confirmation would be a slam dunk. But these aren’t normal times -- whether it was how Senate Republicans handled Merrick Garland’s nomination, or Trump’s lack of outreach so far to Democrats (including accusing Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of having fake tears). This should be easy for Republicans, but they haven’t laid the groundwork to make this easy. How does the confirmation process work? Here’s everything you need to know.
The U.S. Senate is broken -- because obstruction works, and the offending party pays almost no price
A year ago, it was Senate Republicans refusing to even grant a hearing to Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick, and Democrats complaining of obstruction. And now the roles are reversed: Senate Democrats are vowing to filibuster Gorsuch’s nomination, while Republicans are the ones demanding a fair hearing. The Washington Post’s Paul Kane writes that, if Democrats filibuster the pick (demanding 60 votes for passage), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could do what Democrats did before him -- eliminate the filibuster for a Supreme Court pick (where Gorsuch needs only a simple majority). That, Kane says, “could end the Senate’s long history as the world’s greatest deliberative body.” But here’s the reality of things in the U.S. Senate: 100% obstruction works, and the offending party pays almost no price. (You could argue that, in 2012, Mitt Romney paid a price for GOP obstructionism, but the senators and congressmen never did.) That’s how Republicans won in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, and how they’re on the brink of replacing Antonin Scalia with Neil Gorsuch -- instead of Merrick Garland. And it’s why Democrats will probably dig their heels here, even if it will be difficult (if not impossible) to deny Gorsuch confirmation.
Why Democrats could force McConnell to scrap the filibuster for Supreme Court picks
Because they want him to own it: That’s the case that liberal writer Jonathan Chait makes. “Democrats have an extremely simple choice. They can make McConnell abolish the filibuster, or wait for the day when McConnell attacks them for doing it. It is McConnell, his extraordinary blockade tactic, who has functionally changed the rules of the game. He should be forced to do it in name.” On the other hand, there’s the argument that Senate Democrats should wait to do this for another SCOTUS (say if Justice Kennedy retires or if there’s a liberal vacancy).
Gorsuch’s strengths and weaknesses
- Given his reputation as an “ardent textualist,”per Scotusblog, he’s seen as a natural successor to Antonin Scalia.
- Is conservative but without many opinions and views likely to draw immediate fire from Democrats – like William Pryor would have triggered. See his easy Senate confirmation in 2006 by voice vote.
- Likely to energize social conservatives with his past opinions defending religious liberty (especially concerning Obamacare).
- While social conservatives will hail his views on religious liberty, those in favor of assisted suicide and euthanasia won’t like the 2009 book he wrote – “The Future of Assisted Suicide And Euthanasia” – which argues against legalization.
- Gorsuch’s mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, was the head of the Environmental Protection Agency under Reagan – and the first woman to head agency. But she was forced to resign in 1983 after being cited for contempt of Congress “for refusing to turn over Superfund records, arguing that they were protected by executive privilege,” according to the Washington Post’s obituary of her. She died of cancer in 2004 at the age of 62.
- Democrats will likely seize on Gorsuch’s previous opposition to the so-called “Chevron” doctrine – through which courts have given the executive branch wide deference in determining vague laws and rulings.
How Trump’s “America First” vision could upend the post-war consensus
In the view of some experts, Trump's early [foreign-policy] moves signal a determination to tear down an international order founded on free trade, human rights, and collective security that has guided the world through the Cold War and into the 21st Century,” NBC’s Benjy Sarlin writes. “‘Republicans and Democrats always had a consensus about the importance of U.S.-led multilateral institutions, the centrality of globalization, and free trade,’ said Ian Bremmer, a political scientist and president of the Eurasia Group. ‘Some were more skeptical than others, but the idea behind all of these things was that using American leadership to create standards and alliances benefits us because we're the biggest economy and have the strongest military.’”
What were past newly-inaugurated presidents doing on Feb. 1?
- Barack Obama conducts his first traditional Superbowl Sunday network interview
- George W. Bush’s attorney general, John Ashcroft, is narrowly confirmed after a prolonged and bitter battle
- Bill Clinton issues an executive order revoking Bush-era regulations on how federal contractors interact with unions
- George H.W. Bush nominates Ken Starr as Solicitor General
- The Soviet press intensifies its criticism of Ronald Reagan for suggesting that the Kremlin supports terrorism
- Jimmy Carter deals with the fallout from a cold blitz in the Midwest and Northeast that leaves dozens dead