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Supreme Court confirmation process likely to follow the Gorsuch playbook

WASHINGTON — The Republican game plan for selecting the next member of the Supreme Court was ready to go even before longtime Justice Anthony Kennedy made his retirement announcement this week.

Kennedy’s news that he’ll leave the court next month immediately activated a network of White House aides, congressional allies and outside advocates, all set for their second Supreme Court confirmation fight in two years. With the successful push for Justice Neil Gorsuch still fresh in their minds, their effort this time is expected to follow a similar playbook.

Trump has hit the ground running, meeting Thursday with key Republican and Democratic senators at the White House in the evening to discuss the vacancy. Trump welcomed Republicans Chuck Grassley, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Democrats Joe Manchin, Joe Donnelly and Heidi Heitkamp as part of the effort. The White House said Trump’s team also spoke with more than a dozen additional senators.

Speaking earlier in the day in Wisconsin, Trump said: “We’re going to pick ourselves one great United States Supreme Court justice to take the place of a great man.”

READ MORE: Justice Kennedy’s retirement, his legacy and what it means going forward

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said Trump had already begun the selection process, adding that it is “something that the president takes very seriously.” Trump’s wish list, she said, includes “tremendous intellect, judicial temperament and impeccable qualifications.”

Leonard Leo, who is taking a leave of absence as executive vice president of the Federalist Society to serve as an outside adviser in the selection process, said Trump “wants to move swiftly and I think that probably means in the next two or three weeks.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has committed to confirming a nominee in the fall, which the Republican-controlled Senate should be able to do if McConnell can hold his razor-thin majority together.

Leo said Trump was “committed to a full-throttle process” that includes meeting with several top contenders. He said the president was pleased with the game plan that put Gorsuch on the bench, which involved a network of White House aides, congressional allies and outside advocates.

Once again, Trump will draw this time from a list of 25 prospective candidates that was first established during the campaign and updated last fall, with advice from Leo and other conservatives. Advisers within the administration include White House Counsel Don McGahn. Last time the pool of contenders narrowed from eight to six and then to a final three, Leo said.

Some possible nominees being eyed include Thomas Hardiman, who serves alongside Trump’s sister on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Raymond Kethledge, a federal appeals court judge who clerked for Kennedy. Also of interest are Amul Thapar, who serves on the federal appeals court in Cincinnati, lives in Kentucky and is close to McConnell; Brett Kavanaugh, a former clerk for Kennedy who serves on the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.; and Amy Coney Barrett, who serves on the federal appeals court in Chicago.

In the run-up to selecting Gorsuch, Trump met with three contenders and White House officials vetted several more. Leo said he expected that work to start before Trump leaves on July 10 for a trip to Europe, adding that it was “not outside the realm of possibility” that the search process could conclude by then.

While the White House begins its internal vetting process, outreach also has already begun to senators, said White House Legislative Director Marc Short. And outside supporters have already begun a public advocacy campaign, focusing their pressure on Democratic senators in states that supported Trump.

The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative political campaign organization, launched a seven-figure ad buy Wednesday, aimed at vulnerable Democrats, said chief counsel and policy director Carrie Severino. She said the group spent $10 million supporting the Gorsuch confirmation.

“We’d be very happy if he’d pick any name on that list,” said Severino. “Judges, and particularly the Supreme Court, have been a resounding success of this administration. What we’re seeing here is Gorsuch 2.0.”

Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a campaign group aligned with McConnell, said the group began running ads Thursday in 10 states that Trump won in 2016 where Democratic senators are now up for re-election.

A sign that the White House is also focusing on these Democrats: Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, was at the White House Thursday night for a meeting with Trump.

During the Gorsuch nomination, the White House took great pains to keep the public guessing on Trump’s final choice, whisking Gorsuch to Washington on a military jet and having him stay quietly with friends, away from hotels. Trump relished the suspense of the final reveal, asking “So was that a surprise? Was it?” as he announced his pick on prime-time television.

Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

READ MORE: The fight to fill Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Supreme Court seat is underway