There's a tendency to assume that President Trump is always operating off a master plan that only he can see. That where others see chaos, he sees careful orchestration.
That sense is rooted in the fact that Trump's 2016 presidential campaign constantly looked like it was totally out of control — and then he won. If Trump fooled us all then, what's to say he's not doing it again right now?
Which brings me to the news of the moment: that Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, criticized the chief executive's attacks on the federal judge who put his travel ban on hold late last week. Gorsuch reportedly called those attacks “disheartening” and “demoralizing.”
On its face, this is a remarkable story. The man whom Trump picked to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court is turning on the president just a week after he was nominated. Given how much Trump hates being criticized by alleged allies, it was a stunning comment — and one that lit the political world on fire Wednesday night. How would Trump react? Would he pull the nomination? Attack Gorsuch? Both? Neither? As always with Trump, all options were on the table.
But dig a little deeper and the conspiracy theories begin to seem, well, not so conspiratorial. The whole story originated with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) after a meeting with Gorsuch. Blumenthal said that during the meeting Gorsuch had used the words “disheartening” and “demoralizing” to describe Trump's comment. He said that he then asked Gorsuch if he could publicize those comments and Gorsuch said he could.
Gorsuch spokesman Ron Bonjean, an old Washington communications pro, confirmed quickly that Gorsuch had used the words. And Kelly Ayotte, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire who is shepherding Gorsuch's nomination, put out a statement Thursday morning broadly echoing the truth of the leak. “While [Gorsuch] made clear that he was not referring to any specific case, he said that he finds any criticism of a judge's integrity and independence disheartening and demoralizing,” said Ayotte.
Later Thursday morning in an interview on Fox News, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway seemed to suggest that the episode was an example of Trump's hands-off approach to his court and Cabinet picks. “He is very comfortable with his nominees expressing their own points of view,” Conway said. “He said that when these folks were being grilled by the Democratic senators, who ended up voting against them anyway for no good reason except politics. He said, 'I want them to express their own independent views.' So, the president is very comfortable with that.”
1. Trump's Supreme Court nominee ran down Trump in a meeting with a Democratic senator.
2. He told that same senator that it was okay to tell the whole world about his comments.
3. Gorsuch's two lead handlers largely confirmed the events.
4. Conway used the leak to make the case that Trump is magnanimous when it comes to the people he chooses for important posts.
You can see why people might raise an eyebrow. After all, what better way for Gorsuch to overcome Democratic senators' skepticism about him than to show some independence from Trump? What better signal that he recognizes the clear separation between the executive branch and the judicial branch? Even if you don't believe in conspiracy theories, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a better scenario to help establish Gorsuch as his own man, not beholden to the president.
And/but there's this tweet from Trump this morning.
Sen.Richard Blumenthal, who never fought in Vietnam when he said for years he had (major lie),now misrepresents what Judge Gorsuch told him?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
It's not clear what Blumenthal “misrepresents” according to Trump — especially since Bonjean and Ayotte seem to confirm the episode.
The Democratic National Committee, for one, was not fooled. “While Donald Trump’s morning tweets show [White House strategist] Steve Bannon may not have clued him in on the ruse, this is clearly a meaningless White House-orchestrated attempt to help Judge Gorsuch pretend he won’t be a rubber stamp for the Trump administration,” said a DNC spokesman.
No matter whether Trump intentionally engineered this whole thing, the potential outcomes are all to the good for him. First, Gorsuch gets a very high-profile chance to separate himself from the controversial president. Second, Trump allies get to paint him as someone who is very much willing to let people have their own views even if they don't jibe with his. And third, Trump gets to pick a fight with a Democrat over Vietnam service.
In his eyes, that's a win-win-win. And I don't think we can rule out the possibility that this was all part of his broader plan.