Report: White House asked Hardiman to travel on Tuesday to create false impression he was headed to D.C.

Three administration officials who did not want to be identified said Judge Hardiman hit the road to Washington to help them maintain the illusion that the selection process was still competitive. Judge Hardiman did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Wednesday. His friends say he was simply visiting a colleague who lives in Altoona.

The day began with a phone call from Don McGahn, the White House counsel, who informed Judge Hardiman that Mr. Trump’s pick would be Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, another conservative appeals court judge, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. But putting on a dignified East Room ceremony announcing Judge Gorsuch’s nomination was important for an administration struggling to recover from the self-inflicted wound of last Friday’s executive order barring migrants from seven Muslim nations, which has provoked a powerful bipartisan backlash.

Getting the optics just right, people close to Mr. Trump said, was a priority. But by late Monday news media outlets were killing the buzz, and starting to report that Judge Gorsuch looked like a sure thing.