Senate Democrats sent mixed signals the day after Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch expressed concerns about President Trump’s attacks on the federal judiciary — a sign that the judge’s comments could attract some badly needed Democratic support.
“To whisper to a senator but to refuse to say anything public is not close to a good enough show on independence. So from my view, not a good start for Judge Gorsuch. Not a good start,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), speaking on the Senate floor.
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, struck a more positive note about Gorsuch’s remarks, which came in a meeting with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
“I for one appreciated them,” Feinstein said. “I think he was being truthful as to how he felt about it. And that was very much appreciated.” She said she wanted Gorsuch to have a “fair hearing process.”
The comments highlighted the lingering uncertainty over a crucial question: What level of support will Gorsuch receive from the Democratic caucus?
Republicans hope that at least eight of them will break ranks to help his nomination clear procedural hurdles, if not support him outright. But that will be challenging, as Democrats have largely united against Trump in the first three weeks of his presidency and have signaled they intend to keep doing so.
In a private session with Blumenthal on Wednesday, Gorsuch called Trump’s criticism of federal judges “disheartening” and “demoralizing” — raising some Republicans’ hopes that he had separated himself from the president’s controversial posture in a way that could warm some Democrats to him.
“I think [Gorsuch’s] position is very, very positive” and his recent comments “show respect for what we all respect from the judiciary, in terms of independence. He’s established that, answered that question from the Democrats who were grasping at straws in the first place since they know he’s a mainstream judge,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Injecting further uncertainty into the process: Trump on Thursday disputed Blumenthal’s account, even after it was confirmed by Gorsuch’s team.
Republicans are hoping to confirm Gorsuch by early April, and they have moved swiftly toward meeting that self-imposed target. Grassley said Thursday that he is considering holding Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings sooner than he had planned, in light of recent Democratic attempts to slow the confirmations of many of Trump’s Cabinet nominees.
“The fact that we see all of these stalling shenanigans could impact the necessity of moving it forward,” he said. “If we’re going to have the same game played on Gorsuch, that’ll be taken into consideration.”
Grassley said early to mid-March is now under consideration as a time frame, whereas he had been looking at mid- to late March a few weeks ago.
Several Senate Democratic officials called the White House’s aim of winning over a few Democrats for the Gorsuch nomination overly hopeful. They said that Gorsuch’s criticism of Trump’s comments was not going to suddenly change Democratic minds about whether to confirm him.
The officials said the party’s strategy moving forward is to further raise the bar as Gorsuch asserts his judicial independence. That means pressing Gorsuch to speak out more forcefully about Trump’s comments and to do so publicly rather than in private meetings. They expect Democratic senators to push Gorsuch on issues such as Trump’s temporary ban on entry to the United States for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries and all refugees.
“Because President Trump has made unwise and unbalanced comments that are perceived as undermining judicial independence, I expect in my conversation with Judge Gorsuch to raise the issue of judicial independence, to ask for a demonstration of his commitment to judicial independence,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).
Gorsuch was back on Capitol Hill on Thursday, where he met with six senators — five Republicans and one Democrat. He ignored questions from reporters as he strode down a hall with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) for his first meeting of the day.
Afterward, Collins said she did not press Gorsuch on his comments criticizing Trump. But, Collins said, “I disagree” with Trump’s attacks against judges, which included recent criticism of the judge who halted the refugee ban.
Collins said she has not decided whether she will vote to confirm Gorsuch.
Democrats have signaled that they will seek to impose a 60-vote threshold on Gorsuch’s nomination, while Republicans have said that he should get a straight up-or-down vote without having to first clear that obstacle.
Trump has said that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ought to “go nuclear” and change the rules so that Gorsuch can be confirmed with a simple majority. Republicans hold a 52-to-48 advantage over the Democratic caucus.
“I thought he’d get more than 60 votes and still do,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said.
Flake said he does not see Gorsuch’s attention-grabbing comments as a “calculated statement” encouraged by the White House to get him confirmed.
“When you read his opinions, the statements and speeches he’s given, he feels very strongly about the separation of powers,” Flake said. “I have a hard time believing” that his statements were part of a political strategy.
Ahead of a Thursday lunch with a bipartisan group of senators at the White House, Trump said during a brief availability with reporters that he believed Gorsuch’s comments were “misrepresented” by Blumenthal. Trump then took a shot at the Connecticut Democrat.
“What you should do is ask Senator Blumenthal about his Vietnam record that didn’t exist after years of saying it did,” he said. “So ask Senator Blumenthal about his Vietnam record. He misrepresented that just like he misrepresented Judge Gorsuch.”
Blumenthal came under sharp criticism during his 2010 Senate campaign for repeated remarks over the years that he had “served” in Vietnam, even though he did his full Marine service in the United States.
Blumenthal obtained several deferments between 1965 and 1970 and then joined the Marine Corps Reserve but did not serve in Vietnam. He later said he misspoke and intended to say that he was in the Marine Reserve during the Vietnam conflict.
Trump received five deferments from the draft during the Vietnam War, four while he was a student and a fifth for bone spurs in his heels, records show.
Trump on Thursday also reiterated his support for Gorsuch, calling him an “exceptionally qualified nominee.” But the president acknowledged that getting Democrats to agree with him may be hard.
“I think that because of politics, perhaps they’re not going to vote for him. I think that’s a shame because that’s not being honest,” Trump said.
Grassley said there was “absolutely not” a coordinated strategy between the Judiciary Committee and the White House to broadcast Gorsuch’s comments widely.
“There couldn’t have been any conspiracy between members of the Judiciary Committee or Republicans because how would we know that Blumenthal would do what he did?” Grassley asked. “These are usually private conversations.”
As Gorsuch appeared to make at least some progress on the left, on Twitter and on talk radio, there were growing grumbles from the right about him.
“Doesn’t that make you concerned that Judge Gorsuch might be the kind of justice then who would want to please the editorial boards of the New York Times and The Washington Post when a hot-button issue comes up? That crossed my mind last night, didn’t make me happy to hear it at all,” conservative commentator Laura Ingraham said Thursday on her radio program.
But Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a conservative member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Post in a phone interview that a revolt against Gorsuch from the right is very unlikely — and said he was “surprised” by Ingraham’s criticism.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a centrist who attended the White House meeting with Trump, was not impressed by Trump’s attack against Blumenthal — yet another reminder that as Gorsuch courts Democratic votes, the actions of the president will also be closely watched.
“That’s something I wouldn’t have done,” Manchin said, admitting that many in the room found the president’s attack on a fellow senator awkward.
Ed O’Keefe and John Wagner contributed to this report.