White House Taps Dark-Money Lobbyist as ‘Sherpa’ for SCOTUS Pick

White House Taps Dark-Money Lobbyist as ‘Sherpa’ for SCOTUS Pick
Former senator and current lobbyist Jon Kyl, who was chosen to serve as sherpa for President Trump's Supreme Court nominee

The White House on Monday announced that former Senator Jon Kyl will play the role of “sherpa” for President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Kennedy on the Supreme Court.

Kyl, who retired from Congress in 2013, is now senior of counsel with Covington & Burling LLP, one of the top lobbying shops in Washington, D.C. As sherpa, Kyl will guide the nominee during the confirmation process, advising them on language and accompanying them as they meet with members of the Senate who will vote on their confirmation.

In 2017, a conservative dark-money group called the Judicial Crisis Network paid Covington & Burling $215,000 to have Kyl and another of their lobbyists, William Wichterman, work as unofficial sherpas for Trump’s last Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch. Kyl and Wichterman were paid by the group to support the confirmation of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, as well as to prepare for another possible Supreme Court vacancy, according to lobbying disclosures reported with the Senate,

The Judicial Crisis Network spent $17 million in 2016 and 2017 on efforts to prevent President Barack Obama’s pick to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, from being confirmed, and supporting Trump’s pick for the seat, Neil Gorsuch.

The Judicial Crisis Network is set up as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit and is not required by law to disclose information about its donors, but they appear to be funded primarily by another nonprofit called the Wellspring Committee. However, the ultimate source of the funding is still a mystery. The Wellspring Committee is also a 501(c)(4), and so far it has been able to keep the identity of its donors secret. All that is known is that the vast majority of Wellspring’s funds in 2016 ($28.5 million of $32 million) came from a single anonymous donor.

Both the Judicial Crisis Network and the Wellspring Committee made payments in 2016 totaling almost $1.7 million to another organization, the BH Group, which shares prominent personnel with the Federalist Society, a group that Kyl has been connected to.

The Federalist Society, an association of conservatives and libertarians, works to promote their political positions within the legal system. The group has served as a pipeline for most of Trump’s judicial nominees, and its Executive Vice President, Leonard Leo, has been working directly with the Trump Administration to choose Justice Kennedy’s replacement. Kyl is listed as a contributor on the Federalist Society’s website, having spoken at numerous events hosted by the group in recent years.

Leo, the Federalist Society’s longtime leader, listed the BH Group as his employer in campaign finance documents filed with the Federal Elections Commission earlier this year.