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Fight to fill SCOTUS seat could boost Trump or backfire

President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch

President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Jim Watson and Brendan Smialowski

Full-court press

President Donald Trump sees quickly nominating a successor to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a boost for his reelection, and why not? It's an opportunity to change the subject from the coronavirus pandemic — a top liability for Trump — and could galvanize social-conservative support, like his promises for filling a vacancy did in 2016.

But 2020 is not 2016. A conservative activist told The Associated Press the subject of the court "didn't even come up" when he went door-knocking in the Kansas City suburbs on Saturday. Tim Phillips explained: "I just think given the magnitude of the crises — plural — facing swing voters, this is just not going to be a crucial factor in their final decision."

Democrats see a potential advantage by focusing on what's at stake in the future balance of the highest court, including Obamacare and its popular protections of coverage for preexisting conditions. Arguments on a Trump-supported suit to dismantle the Affordable Care Act are scheduled for Nov. 10, one week after Election Day. That's one way Joe Biden framed his appeal in a speech Sunday to leave the nomination of the next Supreme Court justice to the winner of the election.

"In the middle of the worst global health crisis in living memory, Donald Trump is before the Supreme Court trying to strip health care coverage away from tens of millions of families, to strip away the peace of mind of more than 100 million Americans with preexisting conditions," Biden said.

Though conservatives opposed to abortion and expanded gay rights traditionally have been more fired up about the Supreme Court, NBC News reports that polls before Ginsburg's death found Democrats giving the issue a higher priority — a switch from 2016. Biden appealed to Republicans, who hold a 53-47 Senate majority, to wait.

"Voters of this country should be heard … they’re the ones who this Constitution envisions should decide who has the power to make this appointment," Biden said in Philadelphia. "To jam this nomination through the Senate is just an exercise of raw political power."

Though a Trump rally crowd in North Carolina Saturday night chanted, "Fill that seat," a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted after Ginsburg's death on Friday found that a 62% majority of Americans favor waiting until after the election, including 8 in 10 Democrats and 5 in 10 Republicans. The poll found that 30% of American adults said Ginsburg’s death makes them more likely to vote for Biden, while 25% were now more likely to support Trump; another 38% said it had no impact and the rest said they weren't sure.

Will Republicans hold together?

Furious Democrats are accusing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of hypocrisy for vowing to push forward with Trump's Supreme Court nominee barely more than six weeks before the election, though he blocked a nomination by former President Barack Obama eight months before the 2016 election. While there may not be enough time left for a floor vote before Election Day, McConnell indicated a lame-duck session afterward could confirm a Trump nominee, even if Biden wins and the Democrats prevail in enough Senate races to regain control of the chamber in January 2021.

Two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, agreed with the Democrats that the winner of the election should decide. It would take two more GOP defections to thwart McConnell's plan.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is retiring, on Sunday put to rest speculation that he might want to hold off on principle. "Senator McConnell is only doing what Democrat leaders have said they would do if the shoe were on the other foot," Alexander said in a statement.

Democrats vowed an all-out battle to stop a Trump nominee before the election. "We have arrows in our quiver that I’m not about to discuss right now," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told ABC’s "This Week." Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Sunday told reporters outside Ginsburg's Brooklyn alma mater, James Madison High School, that he would keep open the option of seeking to add more seats to the Supreme Court. "Once we win the Senate, God willing, everything is on the table," he said. For more on the face-off, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez and Michael O'Keeffe.

Front-runners

Trump told the rally crowd Saturday that his nominee to succeed Ginsburg definitely would be a woman, and she's also certain to come with a conservative track record.

Among the favorites, according to multiple reports: Judge Amy Coney Barrett, 48, of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, who was a finalist for the seat that went to Brett Kavanaugh, and former Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Lagoa, 52, now on the Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Lagoa is a daughter of Cuban exiles in Miami, and Trump could see her as a help to his efforts to win closely contested Florida.

Also in the running is Allison Jones Rushing, an appeals court judge in Richmond, Virginia. Only in her late 30s, her potential longevity in the lifetime job could be a plus.

Janison: Boom time for lawyers

Criminal defense attorneys might wish to take a moment to thank Trump and Attorney General William Barr for helping to grow their business, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

First, there was an accidental economic stimulus. Trump's 2016 campaign created a small market for lawyers representing big-name defendants. These included ex-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn and ex-consultant Roger Stone.

Further, the president rewarded lawyers' hard-fought appeals by pardoning and commuting the sentences of such clients as a corrupt ex-Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, and two Oregon cattle ranchers whose sentences for arson led armed militiamen to seize control of a wildlife refuge. Other free-pass recipients were members of the white-collar crime community and an accused war criminal.

In recent days, Barr has even lit into prosecutor, saying Justice Department attorneys too often engage in "headhunting" by pursuing high-profile targets. Surely a lawyer with a prominent client soon can find a way to quote Barr's helpful analysis before a jury.

But before you think the administration has turned itself in to the ACLU, remember that somber concern for the rights of the accused tends to exclude those with the wrong political pedigree.

A look on the bright side

As the U.S. COVID-19 death toll approached 200,000, Trump administration officials on the Sunday talk shows saw bright spots in the numbers.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and testing czar Adm. Dr. Brett Giroir touted that new cases, ICU admittance and deaths per day have declined since a summer peak, which Azar called "incredible progress."

Health officials attributed the decline in daily new cases to 43,000 now from 67,000 in July to people wearing masks, practicing social distancing, washing their hands and avoiding crowded indoor spaces. Giroir warned in congressional testimony last week that the progress could be "fleeting or even reversed" if those recommendations aren't followed.

When asked about Trump disregarding those guidelines at his campaign rallies, Giroir deflected Sunday, saying "biology is independent of politics." For more, see Newsday's story by Rachelle Blidner.

Not taking a shot on Trump

A majority of Americans say they have no confidence at all that a coronavirus vaccine will be safe based on Trump's say-so, according to a new ABC News/Ipsos poll.

With Trump unabashedly pressing to have a vaccine by Election Day, only 9% of Americans have a great deal of confidence that they could take Trump's word on safety. Another 18% had a "good amount" of confidence, 16% "not so much" and 53% "none at all."

The poll also finds fewer Americans — 64% now compared with 74% in May — say they are "likely" to get a "safe and effective coronavirus vaccine." The biggest drop was among Republicans, even though they were far more likely than Democrats to trust Trump's vaccine vouching.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's Lisa L. Colangelo. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Biden leads Trump by 8 points among registered voters nationwide, 51% to 43%, in a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
  • Biden holds a significant lead over Trump among registered Latino voters, garnering 62% of support, compared with Trump’s 26%, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC/Telemundo poll. But Trump's unfavorability among Latino voters has improved from 78% four years ago to 56% today.
  • Trump said he favors a deal involving Walmart and Oracle that would allow the Chinese-owned social networking app TikTok to keep operating in the U.S., but he's set a condition: He wants the companies to create a $5 billion fund for teaching a Trump-approved version of U.S. history.
  • A federal judge in California halted the Trump administration’s ban on downloads of the Chinese-owned app WeChat that was to take effect Sunday evening.
  • A majority of Trump’s supporters plan to cast their ballot on Election Day, while about half of Biden’s backers plan to vote by mail, according to a new Associated Press-NORC poll. Overall, 39% of registered voters say they will vote by mail, well above the 21% who say they normally do so, the poll found.
  • A woman suspected of sending an envelope containing the poison ricin to the White House has been arrested at the New York-Canada border, The Associated Press reported.

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