Donald Trump was planning on Monday to dismiss public health concerns and hold a swearing-in ceremony within hours of Amy Coney Barrett’s expected Senate confirmation to the supreme court.
The president’s announcement of Barrett’s nomination in the White House Rose Garden last month was described as a “superspreader” event, after officials including the president himself became infected with the coronavirus.
But with Barrett’s confirmation appearing a formality, the White House was planning another event for the evening, enabling Trump to celebrate a political victory just eight days before the election.
Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, told reporters: “Tonight, we’ll be doing the best we can to encourage as much social distancing as possible. It’ll be outdoors if it goes off as planned right now. And [we will] still continue to do testing in and around those that are critical to the mission to try to get there.”
Meadows disputed that the first Barrett celebration was necessarily the cause of widespread infection.
“The very first event, while there’s a whole lot of connects that have been made with who was at the event and who came down with it, we’ve been able to look at that and track as many as three different areas where the virus actually infected different people within the White House. So it didn’t all come from that particular event.”
The plan came despite a fresh outbreak that saw several close aides of Mike Pence test positive at the weekend. Trump – who himself spent three nights in hospital receiving treatment for the virus – continues to barnstorm the country with big rallies, where many people do not wear masks or physically distance.
Trump moved quickly to nominate Barrett, 48, for the lifetime appointment to succeed the liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on 18 September aged 87. Barrett is Trump’s third supreme court pick, part of a sustained effort to shift the federal judiciary to the right. But a supreme court nominee has never been confirmed so close to a presidential election.
Barrett, a favourite of Christian conservatives, signed a 2006 newspaper ad that called for the overturning of Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalised abortion, and called its legacy “barbaric”. She did not disclose the ad to the Senate.
Trump has also said he expects the court to decide the outcome of a disputed election, as it did in 2000, and wants Barrett on the bench for any election-related cases.
Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate judiciary committee, said on the Senate floor on Sunday: “It is my belief that Judge Barrett represents a threat to the very rights – including reproductive rights, rights of LGBTQ individuals, and voting rights – that Justice Ginsburg worked so hard to protect.”
On Monday Ron Wyden of Oregon accused Republicans, who blocked Obama’s last supreme court pick in 2016 because it was an election year, of hypocrisy.
“Republicans went back on their word,” he said. “If the cure to Covid-19 was partisanship and rule breaking, then Senate Republicans might be on to something with their low stunt on the high court. But it’s not.”
Kirsten Gillibrand of New York argued that Republicans, whom polls suggest could lose both the White House and Senate, are “rushing because they know this may be their last chance to impose their extreme conservative views on our country”.
On Sunday, the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, suggested that was true, when he said: “A lot of what we’ve done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election. They won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”
As the GOP holds a 53-47 Senate majority, Barrett’s confirmation is all but assured. Republicans reiterated their portrayal of Barrett as a working mother, seen as a potential attempt to neutralise liberal critics and win back female voters who have turned against Trump.
Thom Tillis of North Carolina said: “She’s gonna be the first supreme court justice, female, on the supreme court with school-age children. She has seven of ’em. She’s able to manage the stresses and the challenges of being a working mom while she served with distinction on the seventh circuit while her husband works as well.
“She’s realised her American dream. I believe that she’s going to make sure that everybody else has the freedom to do the same thing. I think Judge Amy Coney Barrett is going to go down in history as one of the great justices on the US supreme court. It is a shame … that this is even a divided decision.”
Susan Collins, who faces a tight re-election fight in Maine, is the sole Republican expected to vote against. She said: “My vote does not reflect any conclusion that I have reached about Judge Barrett’s qualifications to serve. I do not think it is fair nor consistent to have a Senate confirmation vote prior to the election.”