Trump celebrates judicial appointment milestone with onetime rivals

Speaking to top Republican lawmakers and Justice Department officials in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday, President Trump celebrated the appointment of his 150th federal judge, which he called a "profoundly historic milestone and a truly momentous achievement."

The event featured a series of humorous moments as Trump's onetime rivals took the microphone. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, fondly recalled the time Trump had given out his personal phone number on the campaign trail and compared him to a "dog" -- and how the two quickly settled their score shortly after Trump took office.

"The defining moment of your president was the Kavanaugh hearing," Graham said. "This room would be empty if we had failed Brett Kavanaugh. Brett Kavanaugh lived a life we should all be proud of. He worked hard. And the way he was treated was the worst experience I've had in politics. A lot of people would have pulled the plug on him. Mr. President, thank you, for not pulling the plug."

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To sustained applause, Trump noted that 159 judges have been appointed to lifetime terms and that within two months, he expected 182 federal judges to have been appointed under his administration.

"In terms of quality and quantity, we are going to be just about number one by the time we finish -- number one of any president, any administration," Trump said, noting that George Washington may have technically appointed more judges. "So I want to thank all of you for the incredible job you've done. They will uphold our Constitution as written."

The White House says 112 nominees have been confirmed to district courts and 43 to appeals courts, in addition to two justices on the Supreme Court. The Senate is close to confirming the 44th appeals court judge. It's a benchmark that means he'll have filled one-quarter of such judgeships in under three years in office.

By contrast, President Barack Obama nominated 55 circuit judges who were confirmed over eight years -- and Obama's nominees were, on average, much older.

President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House about his judicial appointments, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House about his judicial appointments, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Trump singled out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for a standing ovation, saying his impact in methodically confirming judges in the Senate was "truly amazing." Trump went on to joke that it was "so easy" to get Supreme Court justices confirmed, in a nod to the contentious Brett Kavanaugh hearings last year.

"Generations from now, Americans will know that Mitch McConnell helped save the constitutional rule of law in America -- it's true," Trump said.

Taking the microphone, McConnell said that he was "reminded of Election Night," when he realized that Republicans would have the historically rare opportunity to "set the agenda and move the ball in the right direction."

"You have been helped enormously by a decision that I made, and these guys backed me up, not to let President Obama fill that Scalia vacancy on the way out the door."

— GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

"You have been helped enormously by a decision that I made, and these guys backed me up, not to let President Obama fill that Scalia vacancy on the way out the door," McConnell added, as lawmakers in attendance clapped loudly. "And boy, you didn't blow it. Neil Gorsuch is an all-star, isn't he?"

Obama's appointment of Merrick Garland during his final year in office did not come up for a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate, where it had little chance of success regardless.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., in the East Room of the White House during an event about Trump's judicial appointments, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., in the East Room of the White House during an event about Trump's judicial appointments, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In an offhand comment to Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn, Trump added, "I looked at your polls -- no one's beating, you John. You don't have to worry about Beto anymore. That's for sure. From Texas. He doesn't like guns, religion or oil. He knocked out all three categories. Somehow, in Texas that won't work."

The president also thanked several "warriors" in attendance, including Attorney General Bill Bar, along with GOP Sens. Thom Tillis, Ben Sasse, Marsha Blackburn, "young star" Josh Hawley, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Chuck Grassley.

Grassley, taking the microphone, commended the president not just "for running on a platform, but for standing on a platform." The president then praised Grassley for effortlessly making former FBI Director James Comey "choke" during testimony.

As to Cruz, Trump remarked, "We were good friends, and then really bad. ... but, I said, Ted and I get along good." The president maintained that he predicted "when it ends, it will be really bad, probably worse than normal -- and it was vicious for about four months, and now we have a great relationship again."

Additionally, Trump thanked the Office of Legal Policy and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who takes a major role in securing judicial appointments, calling him the "strong, silent type."

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"I always wanted to be the strong, silent type, but it never worked out for me," Trump joked.

The president called the judiciary a key bulwark to protect from the concentration of government power.

"When judges assume the role of a legislature, the rights of all citizens are threatened," Trump said. "The great English jurist William Blackstone warned that if the judicial power were joined with the legislative, then life, liberty and property would be in the hands of arbitrary judges."

As the event concluded, lawmakers headed back to the Senate to vote on two more judges.

Analysts said the Trump administration's progress in securing judicial appointments was monumental.

“This is an exciting milestone for the president,” Judicial Crisis Network policy director Carrie Severino told Fox News.

Attorney General William Barr arrives before President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House about his judicial appointments, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Attorney General William Barr arrives before President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House about his judicial appointments, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

While a number of Trump’s picks are filling seats previously held by judges appointed by Republican presidents, many are taking the place of liberal jurists appointed by Democrats. The Ninth Circuit, for example, once known as a staunchly liberal Court of Appeals, is gradually evening out. Trump has already placed six judges on the Ninth Circuit bench, which currently has one vacancy and will have two more in the near future.

Should Trump fill all three spots, he will have chosen nearly a third of the roster with nine out of 29 judges.

It was a remarkable turnaround, given that he joked just last year that the Ninth Circuit would overturn his pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey.

Severino described Trump’s appellate nominees as “exceptional,” while stressing their independence.

“That’s the kind of judge America wants,” Severino said, claiming that the ability to select judges for lifetime positions is a significant part of why Trump was elected in 2016.

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Democrats have been fierce in their opposition to several of Trump’s selections. Steven Menashi, who was nominated to the Second Circuit, was grilled during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing over his past writings and his work with the White House counsel’s office. A segment on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show discussed a law journal article Menashi wrote in 2010, titled "Ethnonationalism and Liberal Democracy." Maddow cited Menashi’s use of the term “ethnonationalism” to suggest he is aligned with white nationalists, alleging he's on the “fringe of racial thinking.”

During questioning, Hawley, R-Mo., said that Menashi had faced “unusually personal” and “vicious” attacks.

Menashi denied the allegations, saying, “It’s hurtful and I think it misrepresents what I’ve written.”

The American Bar Association (ABA), which evaluates federal judicial nominees, rated Menashi as “Well Qualified,” its highest mark.

The ABA’s rating system was called into question by Republicans, however, after they issued a scathing letter with a “Not Qualified” rating of Lawrence VanDyke, who was nominated for an upcoming vacancy on the Ninth Circuit.

The ABA’s letter cited concerns from unnamed individuals the group interviewed, suggesting that he would not be fair to LGBTQ litigants and that he lacked the proper temperament, knowledge, and work ethic for the role. Republicans accused the ABA of conducting a biased evaluation, as the lead evaluator who conducted interviews once contributed to the campaign of someone who had run against VanDyke for a judicial position.

Additionally, multiple people who were interviewed by the ABA for VanDyke’s evaluation told Fox News that they gave positive reviews and were surprised by the ABA’s findings.

Addressing the accusations in the ABA’s letter, specifically his supposed stance towards the LGBTQ community, VanDyke broke down in tears in the middle of his hearing, denying the allegation.

“No, I did not say that. I do not believe that. It is a fundamental belief of mine that all people are created in the image of God. They should all be treated with dignity and respect,” he said.

Despite opposition from the left, Trump’s picks are likely to be confirmed due to the Senate’s Republican majority.

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Mike Davis, president of The Article III Project, which works to help secure the confirmation of Trump’s picks, noted that the president’s success in this area fulfills one of his 2016 campaign promises.

“President Trump has delivered on his promise to American voters,” Davis said, pointing to Trump’s appointments of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, “and an all-time-record number of circuit judges to the critically important federal courts of appeals.”

Fox News' Ronn Blitzer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.