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Trump attacks senator as debate over judiciary ensnares Supreme Court nominee

Trump attacks senator as debate over judiciary ensnares Supreme Court nominee
President Trump meets with airline executives at the White House on Feb. 9. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

In the short history of the Trump presidency, the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court had been the one effort operating under traditional rules — smooth, carefully planned and predictable.

Until Thursday.

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The disruption came, as has so often been the case, with a tweet from the president, in which he attacked a senator whose support Gorsuch was trying to win.

As Trump repeated his attack later in the day, White House aides seemed to struggle to keep his comments from complicating what had been a textbook rollout of a high-court nomination.

At stake are the votes of a handful of senators who make the difference between an easy confirmation for Gorsuch and a highly partisan one that would require changing the Senate's rules to obtain a win.

Gorsuch has a firm hold on all 52 Republicans in the Senate. He's been trying to woo a handful of Democrats in hopes of reaching the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster. Part of his approach has been to assure them that if he is confirmed,  he would be independent of the man who picked him.

On Wednesday, Gorsuch met with one of the uncommitted Democrats, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Gorsuch told Blumenthal that he was "disheartened" by disparaging statements Trump had made about judges. Trump has aimed his attacks at judges who have been considering legal challenges to his temporary bans on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries. On Thursday, a three-judge federal appeals court panel ruled unanimously against Trump and refused to reinstate the ban.

Blumenthal quickly made the remark public, noting later that Gorsuch had said he was free to do so. A spokesman for Gorsuch confirmed the remark to reporters.

Thursday morning, the former senator who is guiding Gorsuch through the nomination process, confirmed the words again.

"He said that he finds any criticism of a judge's integrity and independence disheartening and demoralizing," former Sen. Kelly Ayotte said in a statement. Gorsuch was not commenting on any specific case and emphasized that he was troubled by any attack on the judiciary, she said.

Senate aides and others familiar with the confirmation process interpreted the comments as a careful effort to distance the nominee just far enough from Trump's controversial remarks to win over the Democratic votes he wants.

The White House team shepherding Gorsuch's nomination appeared to be trying to give Democrats a "justification for voting for him," said James Manley, who served as a top aide to former Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada when he was the chamber's Democratic leader.

But if that was the plan, Trump, notoriously sensitive to criticism, complicated it.

In a tweet Thursday morning, he took a shot at Blumenthal, saying the senator had misrepresented Gorsuch's comments. For good measure, the president also took aim at Blumenthal's credibility, bringing up a seven-year-old controversy over his military service.

"Richard Blumenthal, who never fought in Vietnam when he said for years he had (major lie), now misrepresents what Judge Gorsuch told him?" Trump tweeted.

During Blumenthal's campaign for Senate in 2010, he was criticized for claiming in speeches that he had served in Vietnam. Blumenthal had been in the Marine Corps Reserve and was not posted overseas. He later said he had misspoken about his record a few times out of the hundreds of speeches he has given in his political career.

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A few hours later, in a meeting at the White House with several senators, Trump repeated that criticism.

"His comments were misrepresented. And what you should do is ask Sen. Blumenthal about his Vietnam record that didn't exist after years of him saying it did," Trump told reporters.

"He misrepresented that just like he misrepresented Judge Gorsuch," Trump added, as a couple of Blumenthal's Democratic colleagues sat nearby.

One of them, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, later said he remained uncommitted. "I will continue to review Judge Gorsuch's record, qualifications and his future testimony to determine if I will support him," he said in a statement.

The sequence of events generated multiple theories about what was taking place behind the scenes: Had Gorsuch's comments caught the White House by surprise or, as many Democrats speculated, had they been part of the administration plan all along?

Manley said he leaned toward the simple explanation — that even if some administration officials knew that Gorsuch would try to distance himself from Trump, the president "did what comes naturally, lashing out" at criticism.

"I think the guy can't help himself," he said.

Trump didn't say how Blumenthal had "misrepresented" Gorsuch's comments. But in the daily White House briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted that Gorsuch had been speaking only about "his general philosophy about the judiciary," not about any specific criticisms Trump had made about judges.

"There is a big difference between commenting on the specific comments that had been made in a tweet and his general philosophy about the judiciary and his respect for his fellow judges," Spicer said.

"As a whole, he doesn't like attacks, in general, on the judiciary."

That interpretation might have assuaged the president's feelings, but it undermined whatever effort Gorsuch might have been making to demonstrate independence. It gave Democratic leaders an opening to step up demands that he more explicitly denounce Trump's comments.

A private criticism "whispered" to a senator is "not close to a good enough show of independence," Democratic leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said in a Senate speech. Gorsuch's remarks so far were "not a good start," he added.

The fracas seemed to all but guarantee that Democrats at Gorsuch's confirmation hearing will demand the nominee say something public about the president's remarks — presumably what Gorsuch was hoping to avoid by commenting to Blumenthal privately.

Spicer's spin also appeared to contradict not only what Gorsuch's representatives had said, but also the account offered by a Republican senator, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, about his meeting with Gorsuch.

In his meeting, Sasse said, he had specifically asked Gorsuch about Trump's labeling the federal judge in Seattle who had blocked his travel ban as a "so-called judge."

"I asked him about the 'so-called judges' comment," Sasse said on MSNBC.

"He got pretty passionate about it," Sasse said. Gorsuch told him that "any attack, I think his term to me was, on brothers or sisters of the robe, is an attack on all judges, and he believes in an independent judiciary."

While Trump is not the first president to go after judges, his attacks have been unusually personal.

Over the weekend, Trump said Americans should blame judges who blocked his travel ban if there were terrorist attacks in the U.S. And at a conference of police chiefs in Washington on Wednesday, he accused judges ruling against him of acting with political motives.

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Spicer made clear Trump plans to continue that practice.

"The president is going to speak his mind," Spicer said.

"Part of the reason the president got elected is because he speaks his mind. He doesn't hold back," Spicer added.

"He has no regrets."

Twitter: @davidlauter

Twitter: @bybrianbennett

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UPDATES:

3:20 p.m.: This story was updated with comment from Trump.

1:15 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

This story was originally published at 8:25 a.m.

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