On Night of Ginsburg’s Death, McConnell Pushed Trump to Nominate Amy Coney Barrett

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November 24, 2020

When liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at age 87, six weeks before the 2020 presidential election, Mitch McConnell wasted no time.

The Senate majority leader, a powerful Republican from Kentucky, quickly reached President Donald Trump on the phone and made his plan clear, a FRONTLINE documentary reports.

“McConnell told [Trump] two things,” Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff, told FRONTLINE in the above excerpt from Supreme Revenge: Battle for the Court. “McConnell said, first, I’m going to put out a statement that says we’re going to fill the vacancy. Second, he said, you’ve gotta nominate Amy Coney Barrett.”

It was a very different approach than McConnell had taken four-and-a-half years prior, when he refused to allow the Senate to consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, after Justice Antonin Scalia died more than eight months before the 2016 presidential election.

But as sources recount in the documentary, charges of hypocrisy did not deter McConnell. In the aftermath of Ginsburg’s death, McConnell’s political maneuvering went according to his plan — with Barrett’s speedy confirmation days before the 2020 election serving as a crowning achievement in a hard-fought, decades-long effort to tilt the ideology of the nation’s highest court to the right.

“What it meant for Senator McConnell was to cement a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court,” Associated Press reporter Darlene Superville told FRONTLINE. “It’s something that McConnell has longed for, dreamed about, worked for during his entire career in the Senate.”

FRONTLINE tells the inside story of McConnell’s successful effort in Supreme Revenge: Battle for the Court, an updated version of 2019’s Supreme Revenge from veteran filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team that is now streaming in full online.

The updated film traces how a 30-year-old grievance — starting with the bruising and failed confirmation hearing of President Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, presided over by Joe Biden (D-Del.), at that time the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee — sparked a vow from then-freshman Senator McConnell to retaliate.

The documentary goes on to track how McConnell made good on that promise in the years to come and how he eventually secured a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court majority that could shape American life and policy for a generation.

With McConnell re-elected to another six-year term and former Vice President Joe Biden, his old rival from the Bork episode and beyond, set to assume the presidency in January, Supreme Revenge: Battle for the Court offers both a gripping political narrative and critical context on the state of America’s judicial system at the dawning of the Biden administration.

“For Mitch McConnell,” former Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told FRONTLINE, “the court is everything.”

For the full story, watch Supreme Revenge: Battle for the Court:

The documentary premiered Tuesday, Nov. 24. It is available to stream in FRONTLINE’s online collection of films, on the PBS Video App and on YouTube. To hear more from the film’s sources, in their own words, read and watch interviews from the making of the documentary, part of FRONTLINE’s ongoing Transparency Project.

This story was updated to include an embed of the full film once it was published online.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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