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Ayotte to lead White House team shepherding Supreme Court nominee

  • Then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte speaks to the ‘Monitor’ editorial board last year. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file



Washington Post
Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The White House has assembled a team of political veterans with deep experience navigating the Senate to help shepherd President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court.

Leading the effort will be former senator Kelly Ayotte, a relatively moderate Republican from New Hampshire, according to a senior White House official who detailed the assignments on the condition of anonymity.

Ayotte will serve as Judge Neil Gorsuch’s so­called sherpa, personally introducing him to senators and escorting him to meetings and the confirmation hearing. Ayotte, who narrowly lost re-election last fall, is an unlikely selection by Trump considering she spoke out against his candidacy and was seen as having been on a blacklist for appointments to the new administration.

But Trump and his advisers sought Ayotte’s help guiding the nominee through the Senate, where she could use her personal relationships with centrist senators to attract Democratic support. The president wants to unify senators around his nominee, and by selecting Ayotte the White House hopes to show that Trump can overcome personal grudges.

The lead staffer on Gorsuch’s team will be Makan Delrahim, currently the director of nominations for the White House legislative affairs office. Delrahim will serve as “the quarterback,” in the words of the White House official, overseeing strategy and outreach with the Senate. Delrahim worked on the Senate Judiciary Committee under two chairmen, Sens. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican and Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican.

Delrahim will work closely with Mary Elizabeth Taylor, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, where she ran the Senate cloakroom and developed personal relationships with Republican senators.

Also involved will be Rick Dearborn, a deputy White House chief of staff and a former chief of staff to Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, and Marc Short, the White House’s director of legislative affairs.

The communications strategy will be overseen by Ron Bonjean, a longtime Republican strategist who has served as chief of staff to the Senate Republican Conference and as the chief spokesman for former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican.

Bonjean, who runs a public affairs firm, was brought on as a consultant to the Trump transition team to help guide communications efforts to Cabinet nominees and is a trusted associate of White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

Several White House aides will also work on communications for the Supreme Court nominee. Steven Cheung will be a primary point of contact for journalists, while Jessica Ditto and Boris Epshteyn will oversee messaging and surrogate outreach.