A top outside advisor to Trump secretly assures Koch donors that a lot more conservative judges are on the way

  • One of President Trump's leading outside advisors assured a group of top Koch network donors that the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is just the beginning of an even bigger effort to load federal courts with conservative judges.
  • At a private meeting on Sunday, Leonard Leo told a small group of financiers that the Trump administration was looking to overhaul a large chunk of the federal court of appeals by the end of the year.
  • This assurance shows that while the president has been in a war of words with the organization led by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, the administration and the group still share major common goals.
Leonard Leo and Sen. John Cornyn 
Carolyn Kaster | AP; Justin Sullivan | Getty Images
Leonard Leo and Sen. John Cornyn 

One of President Donald Trump's most important outside advisors assured a group of top Koch network donors over the weekend that the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is just the beginning of an even bigger effort to load up the federal judiciary with conservative judges.

This affirmation from the Federalist Society's Leonard Leo, who advised Trump on the Kavanaugh nomination, shows that while the president has been in a war of words with the organization led by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, the administration and the group still have major goals in common – particularly when it comes to the courts.

At a private meeting Sunday at the Koch summit in Colorado Springs, Leo, along with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told a small group of financiers that the Trump administration was looking to overhaul a large chunk of the federal court of appeals by the end of the year, according to a person who was in the room during the discussion.

"By the end of this year my prediction is that basically 26 percent of the federal appellate bench will have changed under the Trump administration," Leo told donors, prompting a round of applause, said the person, who declined to be named.

Throughout the first two years of his administration, Trump has nominated approximately 30 federal appeals judges with nearly 10 nominees still being reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Cornyn is a member. That's almost double the amount by his predecessor President Barack Obama, who nominated fewer than 20 nominees to the appeals court in his first two years in office.

Cornyn told the donors in the meeting that the Senate plans to confirm more nominees to fill the vacancies on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Arizona, California, Montana and Washington, among other districts. The official website for the court says there are six vacancies. Trump has nominated three candidates to the court.

"You're right we need to do some work on the Ninth Circuit," Cornyn said, according to the person who was in the room. The senator noted that the court has the highest percentage of cases overruled by the Supreme Court.

"We're going to clear the decks on all nominations we can get through the Judiciary Committee before the end of the year," Cornyn added, the person said.

A spokesman for the Koch network would not confirm or deny whether the meeting took place. A spokesman for Cornyn declined to comment. Leo did not return repeated requests for comment.

The private meeting was a divergence from the combative rhetoric expressed by Koch network leaders during the weekend retreat.

Publicly, top officials in the group, which traditionally backs Republican policy initiatives and candidates, suggested they could support some Democrats as the pivotal midterm elections approach. Officials also griped about some of Trump's policies, particularly his aggressive implementation of tariffs on billions of dollars' worth of imported goods. The Kochs espouse a free-trade philosophy. Trump, likewise, has criticized them as "globalists."

Moments of praise

Despite the headline-making criticism for the president at the Koch summit, there were moments of praise for some of Trump's accomplishments. The nomination of two conservative Supreme Court justices, Neil Gorsuch and Kavanagh, was chief among them. Gorsuch was confirmed last year. Kavanaugh, if confirmed, would likely tip the high court toward the conservative side for a generation.

During a separate reception for donors on Sunday, real estate executive Paul Jost acknowledged that seminar participants were raving privately about Trump's Supreme Court picks.

"What you hear from a lot of people is that they didn't support him in the primaries but they support all he's done," Jost said. "They like his Supreme Court appointments."

The president's mission to load up the courts with conservative judges can be traced back to the 2016 presidential election. Then, he sought to reassure traditional Republicans and conservative Christians who may have been skeptical of his character and behavior, as well as his protectionist economic and trade policies.

According to exit polls, one in five voters cited the Supreme Court as one of the reasons they chose to vote that year. For those who said it was the "most important" factor in their decision, 56 percent voted for Trump.

Since then, the Senate has confirmed 45 of Trump's federal judiciary nominees. There are nearly 160 vacancies remaining, according to the U.S. Courts website. There are at least 30 future vacancies as well, with some of those judges looking to retire.

Points of contention

Yet while the Kochs and their supporters seem pleased with Trump's court decisions, over the weekend, they voiced their displeasure about his immigration and trade policies over the weekend. They also went after Republicans in Congress who supported the $1.3 trillion spending bill, which passed in March.

"I know this is uncomfortable," Emily Seidel, chief executive officer of Americans for Prosperity told donors Sunday. "If you are a Democrat and stand up to [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren to corral enough votes for financial reform that breaks barriers for community banks and families, you're darn right we will work with you."

"If you are a Republican who sits on the committee that wrote the worst spending bill in our country's history and you voted for it, you're darn right we will hold you accountable," she added.

Charles Koch himself told reporters that he hopes to see people in power who will back policies that will "move toward a society [of] mutual benefit, equal rights, where everybody has the opportunity to realize their full potential."

"I don't care what initials are in front or after somebody's name," he added.

Trump launched his second attack on the Kochs this week in a tweet Thursday. He said Charles Koch "claims to be giving away millions of dollars to politicians even though I know very few have seen this."

James Davis, a spokesman for the group, responded to Trump's tweet by making it clear that if they disagree with the president, they will go about it in a civil way.

"We have a long-term commitment to unite around issues that will help people improve their lives. Just as we have in the past, we will work together with the President, elected officials and others where we agree," Davis said. "And, where we disagree, we will do so in a civil way. This is what it will take to make progress on the issues and ultimately create a society of mutual benefit – where people succeed by helping others."