The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday instantly upended the nation’s politics in the middle of an already bitter campaign, giving President Trump an opportunity to try to install a third member of the Supreme Court with just weeks before an election that polls show he is currently losing.
The White House had already made quiet preparations in the days before Justice Ginsburg’s death to advance a nominee without waiting for voters to decide whether to give Mr. Trump another four years in the White House. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, vowed Friday night to hold a vote on a Trump nominee but would not say whether he would try to rush it through before the Nov. 3 vote in what would surely be a titanic partisan battle.
The sudden vacancy on the court abruptly transformed the presidential campaign and underscored the stakes of the contest between Mr. Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., his Democratic challenger. It also bolstered Mr. Trump’s effort to shift the subject away from his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and remind Republicans why it matters whether he wins or not, while also potentially galvanizing Democrats who fear a change in the balance of power on the Supreme Court.
If Mr. Trump were able to replace Justice Ginsburg, a liberal icon, it could cement a conservative majority for years to come, giving Republican appointees six of the nine seats. While Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. lately has sided at times with the four liberals on issues like immigration, gay rights and health care, he would no longer be the swing vote on a court with another Trump appointee.
No one understood the broader political consequences of her death better than Justice Ginsburg, who battled through one ailment after another in hopes of hanging onto her seat until after the election. Just days before her death, NPR reported, she dictated this statement to her granddaughter, Clara Spera: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
Joseph R. Biden Jr. said on Friday night that the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death should not be filled until after the presidential election.
“There is no doubt — let me be clear — that the voters should pick the president, and the president should pick the justice for the Senate to consider,” Mr. Biden told reporters after landing at New Castle Airport in Delaware following a campaign trip to Minnesota.
Mr. Biden, the former vice president, pointed to how Senate Republicans refused to consider the nomination of Judge Merrick B. Garland in the final year of President Barack Obama’s second term.
“This was the position the Republican Senate took in 2016 when there were almost 10 months to go before the election,” Mr. Biden said. “That’s the position the United States Senate must take today.”
The statement by Mr. Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate and served as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, immediately put him at odds with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, who said a nominee by President Trump “will receive a vote” in the Senate.
Senator Kamala Harris of California, Mr. Biden’s running mate, also issued a statement: “Even as we focus on the life that she led and process tonight’s grief, her legacy and the future of the court to which she dedicated so much can’t disappear from our effort to honor her,” she said of Justice Ginsburg. “In some of her final moments with her family, she shared her fervent wish to ‘not be replaced until a new President is installed.’ We will honor that wish.”
On Friday night, Mr. Trump did not address his plans in brief remarks to reporters before boarding Air Force One to return to Washington, after a rally in Minnesota.
“She led an amazing life,” he said. “What else can you say? She was an amazing woman. Whether you agreed or not, she was an amazing woman who led an amazing life.”
In his comments to reporters, Mr. Biden also spoke of Justice Ginsburg’s life and career, noting that he presided over her confirmation hearings in 1993. He said she was “not only a giant in the legal profession, but a beloved figure.”
“She practiced the highest American ideals as a justice, equality and justice under the law, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg stood for all of us,” he said.
The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said late Friday that he would move forward with President Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.
“Americans re-elected our majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary,” Mr. McConnell said in a statement. “Once again, we will keep our promise. President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”
Mr. McConnell was notably unclear, however, about the timing, whether he would push for such a vote before the election or wait until a lame-duck session afterward. Several of his members face tough election contests and might balk at seeming to rush a nominee through in such highly political conditions.
Senator Susan M. Collins of Maine, the most endangered Republican incumbent, told The New York Times earlier this month that she would not favor voting on a new justice in October. “I think that’s too close, I really do,” she said.
Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska told Alaska Public Media, during an interview Friday shortly before the announcement of Justice Ginsburg’s death, that she opposed confirming a new justice before the election. “I would not vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee,” she said. “We are 50 some days away from an election.”
Ms. Murkowski called Justice Ginsburg a “true leader and pioneer” in a statement released Friday night. “She has been a champion and crusader for equal justice and civil liberties and has made an enduring mark on history,” Ms. Murkowski said.
Her statement made no reference to appointing a replacement.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that would consider any nominee, told an interviewer in 2018 that if an opening occurred in the last year of Mr. Trump’s term “we’ll wait to the next election.” Mr. Graham, who is in a competitive race of his own, made no mention of the matter in a statement he issued Friday night mourning Justice Ginsburg.
There was immediate reaction from a few Republican senators calling for a quick confirmation and vote before Election Day.
“I believe that the president should next week nominate a successor to the court, and I think it is critical that the Senate takes up and confirms that successor before Election Day,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said during an interview on Fox News. “This nomination is why Donald Trump was elected.”
Senators Martha McSally of Arizona and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, two of the most endangered Republican senators facing re-election, each posted statements to Twitter calling for the Senate to vote on Justice Ginsburg’s replacement.
Still, stunned Republicans expressed initial skepticism on Friday night that Mr. McConnell would find enough votes to confirm a new justice in the weeks before the election. And some of them thought Mr. McConnell would also be unable to do so in a lame-duck session if Republicans lose the White House and control of the Senate.
Two former Senate Republican leadership aides close to Mr. McConnell read the concluding sentence of his statement — “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate” — to mean that he was not committed to pushing through the confirmation before the election and may wait until the lame-duck session.
Privately, some party strategists warned that if Democrats won the presidency and the Senate and Republicans seated a new justice before Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the new Senators were sworn in, Democrats would exact retribution by ending the filibuster and moving to pack the Supreme Court.
Democrats, for their part, moved swiftly to warn Republicans against a hasty confirmation process — echoing Mr. McConnell’s own comments from 2016.
“While no one will ever truly be able to replace Justice Ginsburg, a new president should fill the vacancy,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a member of the Judiciary Committee. “Just like Mitch McConnell said.”
President Trump called Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg a “titan of the law” and a “fighter to the end” in a statement issued hours after her death on Friday.
“Today, our nation mourns the loss of a titan of the law,” Mr. Trump said in the statement, which was posted on his Twitter account late on Friday evening.
“Renowned for her brilliant mind and her powerful dissents at the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg demonstrated that one can disagree without being disagreeable toward one’s colleagues or different points of view,” Mr. Trump said. “Her opinions, including well-known decisions regarding the legal equality of women and the disabled, have inspired all Americans, and generations of great legal minds.”
The president also called Justice Ginsburg a “fighter to the end” who had battled cancer “and other very long odds throughout her remarkable life.”
Earlier Friday, Mr. Trump had reacted with surprise as he learned of Justice Ginsburg’s death while leaving a stage in Bemidji, Minn., where he had been delivering a lengthy campaign speech.
“She just died? I didn’t know that,” Mr. Trump said, speaking briefly to reporters before quickly boarding Air Force One to return to Washington. “She led an amazing life. What else can you say? She was an amazing woman. Whether you agreed or not, she was an amazing woman who led an amazing life.”
During his speech, in an airport hangar, Mr. Trump had clearly appeared to be unaware of the potentially seismic shift to the balance of the Supreme Court that occurred while he was onstage, as he launched sexist attacks against Hillary Clinton and stoked fears of a flood of Islamic terrorists that he said would occur if Joseph R. Biden Jr. were elected.
News that Justice Ginsburg had died of metastatic pancreatic cancer on Friday broke about 15 minutes after Mr. Trump took the stage.
In the speech, Mr. Trump said he wanted to appoint Senator Ted Cruz of Texas to the Supreme Court, and he later said that “one of the things we have done that is so good with the Supreme Court, we have two Supreme Court justices. We will have at the end of my term approximately 300 federal judges.”
He seemed to be in a joking mood, launching into a string of sexist attacks against women who are not running for president. He noted that Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee, was not “big into yoga,” which she claimed was the subject of many of her deleted emails on her personal server. “If she is, she is not getting her money’s worth,” he said, prompting familiar chants of “Lock her up,” which he did nothing to quell. He also inaccurately accused Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York of spending $2 million on “dresses” and rent, and he resuscitated an inaccurate story about Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota marrying her brother.
In contrast, he portrayed himself as the savior of Big Ten football.
“I am your wall,” he said, “between the American dream and chaos.”
Former President Barack Obama on Friday called Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “a warrior for gender equality” who helped Americans see the perils of gender discrimination.
As a litigator and later a jurist, “Justice Ginsburg helped us see that discrimination on the basis of sex isn’t about an abstract ideal of equality; that it doesn’t only harm women; that it has real consequences for all of us,” Mr. Obama said in a statement issued just before midnight and later published on Medium. “It’s about who we are — and who we can be.”
Mr. Obama said Justice Ginsburg had “inspired the generations who followed her, from the tiniest trick-or-treaters to law students burning the midnight oil to the most powerful leaders in the land.” The first group was an apparent reference to children who dressed up in “R.B.G.” costumes for Halloween.
Mr. Obama also weighed in on the contentious issue of when Justice Ginsburg’s successor should be nominated to the Supreme Court.
“A basic principle of the law — and of everyday fairness — is that we apply rules with consistency, and not based on what’s convenient or advantageous in the moment,” Mr. Obama, whose own nominee for the court, Judge Merrick B. Garland, was blocked by Senate Republicans, said in the statement.
”The rule of law, the legitimacy of our courts, the fundamental workings of our democracy all depend on that basic principle,” Mr. Obama added. “As votes are already being cast in this election, Republican senators are now called to apply that standard.”
Former President Bill Clinton, who nominated Justice Ginsberg to the Supreme Court in 1993, praised her on Friday as “one of the most extraordinary justices ever to serve on the Supreme Court.”
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and landmark opinions moved us closer to a more perfect union,” Mr. Clinton wrote on Twitter. “And her powerful dissents reminded us that we walk away from our Constitution’s promise at our peril.”
During Mr. Obama’s second term, Justice Ginsburg shrugged off a chorus of calls for her to retire in order to give a Democratic president the chance to name her replacement.
She planned to stay “as long as I can do the job full steam,” she would say, sometimes adding, “There will be a president after this one, and I’m hopeful that that president will be a fine president.”
Justice Ginsburg’s death could inflame partisan polarization amid a tense presidential campaign season.
But in a show of togetherness on Friday night as the news began to spread in Washington, some people gravitated to the steps of the Supreme Court building. The gathering became a crowd, and a vigil. Some people carried candles, and some shed tears.
Across the United States, people have participated in an outpouring of grief for the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court and a pioneering advocate for women’s rights.
“Ruthie was my friend and I will miss her terribly,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts and a former presidential candidate, said on Twitter.
“As a young mom heading off to Rutgers law school, I saw so few examples of female lawyers or law professors,” she added. “But Ruthie blazed the trail. I’m forever grateful for her example — to me, and to millions of young women who saw her as a role model.”
The chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr., said in a statement released by the court: “Our nation has lost a jurist of historic stature. We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her — a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the loss was “devastating.”
“Every family in America benefited from her brilliant legacy and courage,” she added in a statement. “Her opinions have unequivocally cemented the precedent that all men and women are created equal.”
In recent years, as the court has tilted to the right, Justice Ginsburg became the senior member and de facto leader of a four-justice liberal bloc, drawing attention with her powerful and pointed dissenting opinions. A law student, Shana Knizhnik, anointed her the Notorious R.B.G., a play on the name of the Notorious B.I.G., a famous rapper who was Brooklyn-born, like the justice.
“Gutted,” Ms. Knizhnik tweeted on Friday. “Thank you for everything, R.B.G. May your memory be a blessing.”
Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be a major-party candidate for president, said that “Justice Ginsburg paved the way for so many women, including me.”
“There will never be another like her,” she added.
Many tributes to Justice Ginsburg looked to the future. “Now is not the time for cynicism or hopelessness,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, said on Twitter. “There is and continues to be political possibility to preserve our democracy & move forward.”
Democratic donors gave more money online in the 9 p.m. hour after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died — $6.2 million — than in any other single hour since ActBlue, the donation-processing site, was launched 16 years ago.
Then donors broke the site’s record again in the 10 p.m. hour when donors gave another $6.3 million — more than $100,000 per minute.
The unprecedented outpouring shows the power of a looming Supreme Court confirmation fight to motivate Democratic donors. The previous biggest hour saw $4.3 million in donations processed on Aug. 20, according to an ActBlue spokesperson, the final night of last month’s convention, when Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke.
Hours after Justice Ginsburg’s death, Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, pledged that whomever President Trump picks to replace her would receive a confirmation vote. “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate,” he said in a statement.
“The conventional wisdom is that the Supreme Court only motivates Republicans, but these fund-raising totals demonstrate that that has changed,” said Tommy Vietor, a founder of the progressive Crooked Media group and a veteran of the Obama administration.
While ActBlue does not show where donations go in real time, Democratic donors flooded into at least one page dedicated to key Senate races, called Get Mitch or Die Trying. The page, created by Crooked Media, raised more than $3 million in about three hours, dividing the proceeds between 13 different Democrats running for Senate this year.
Supreme Court confirmation fights have led to big swells of donations before. The Senate hearings and votes on Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in 2018 drove record donations into the campaign coffers of then-Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, a centrist Democrat who raised $12.4 million in the first half of October after she announced she would oppose his nomination. She was defeated in her re-election bid the next month.
Senator Mitch McConnell implored fellow Republican senators on Friday night to “keep your powder dry” in an effort to stave off defections, as he weighed whether to force a vote on a possible replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before the Nov. 3 presidential election.
In a “Dear Colleagues” letter, Mr. McConnell, the majority leader, who is from Kentucky, said that senators should not take firm positions until he has a chance to meet with them when they return to Washington. With at least two members of his caucus already indicating in recent days that they would not support confirming a nominee so soon before the election, Mr. McConnell cannot afford to lose more than one more senator.
“Over the coming days, we are all going to come under tremendous pressure from the press to announce how we will handle the coming nomination,” Mr. McConnell wrote. “For those of you who are unsure how to answer, or for those inclined to oppose giving a nominee a vote, I urge you all to keep your powder dry.” He urged them not to “lock yourselves into a position you may later regret.”
Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have already said they did not favor voting on a nomination by President Trump so soon before the election. Several other senators, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, have indicated in recent years that they would not support filling a Supreme Court vacancy during a presidential election, but they did not reiterate that position on Friday after Justice Ginsburg’s death.
With a 53-vote majority and Vice President Mike Pence available to break ties, Mr. McConnell can only afford to lose three members if Democrats remain united against confirming a Trump nominee before the election.
Mr. McConnell blocked President Barack Obama from filling a vacancy that occurred in February 2016, nearly nine months before that year’s election, arguing that the selection should go to whoever the voters picked as the next president. In his letter on Friday night, Mr. McConnell argued that that did not set a precedent for this year, because this time, both the president and the Senate majority are from the same party.
He also dismissed the emerging argument that there was not enough time to confirm a nominee before the election, noting that Justice Ginsburg herself was confirmed just 50 days after her nomination.
President Trump, who counts his two Supreme Court appointments as among his greatest successes, last week issued a new list of 20 potential nominees to the court. There was no vacancy at the time, and the exercise seemed aimed at focusing attention on an issue that had helped secure his election in 2016.
In 2016, similar lists helped persuade wary conservatives to support his unconventional candidacy, particularly because the death of Justice Antonin Scalia that February had created a vacancy. That the new list, which included three senators and two former solicitors general, was issued when there was no vacancy suggested that the move had political aims.
Mr. Trump now has about 40 potential nominees to choose among. Before listing the new candidates last week, he singled out three judges from earlier lists who are widely believed to remain front-runners: Amy Coney Barrett of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago; Thomas M. Hardiman of the Third Circuit, in Philadelphia; and William H. Pryor Jr. of the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta.
The new list included three Republican senators: Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri. Over the nation’s history, it was not unusual for sitting senators to be named to the Supreme Court, though it has been almost half a century since a former senator sat on the court.
The new list included lawyers who had worked at the White House and in the Justice Department, notably Noel J. Francisco, who recently stepped down as solicitor general, having defended many of Mr. Trump’s policies and programs before the justices, as well as a number of federal appeals court judges.
All of his candidates, Mr. Trump said, were judicial conservatives in the mold of Justice Scalia and two current members of the court, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.