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Gorsuch Begins Seeking Support With Break From Trump

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch's break with Trump on judicial criticism might hurt him with the president but could help win Democratic support.
Image: Neil Gorsuch
Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch, right, arrives for a meeting with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. Collins is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee which will oversee the Gorsuch confirmation hearing. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Neil Gorsuch's break with President Donald Trump over the president's disparaging remarks about the judiciary is something that could hurt his relationship with the man who nominated him to the highest court in the land.

It could also help Gorsuch reach the bench.

Democrats and their allies have been preparing for an admittedly uphill battle to oppose Gorsuch by tying the conservative 10 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge to Trump and his combative and controversial views of the judiciary. Gorsuch made that task more difficult this week when he said he was "disheartened" by Trump's remarks attacking judicial decisions and even singled out one member of the court as a "so-called judge."

Related: SCOTUS Nominee Calls Trump Attacks on Judges 'Demoralizing'

The judge may have inspired some goodwill among some Democratic senators he needs for a smooth confirmation.

But those sentiments have also placed Gorsuch in an uncomfortable position as Trump and his spokesman insist that his remarks were taken out of context and Democrats urge him to speak more publicly on the matter.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, who met with Gorsuch prior to Trump's statements, said they didn't discuss the president's relationship with the judiciary but was pleased to hear what the judge expressed.

"I think that basically gives people comfort that didn't have comfort," Manchin said. "That has helped him" in his quest for confirmation.

Gorsuch on Wednesday told Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, that he was "disheartened by the demoralizing" remarks Trump made about the judges who are considering his immigration ban executive order.

But Schumer said that Gorsuch needs to be more public about his dissatisfaction with Trump in order to appeal to many Democrats.

"I said to him, 'You have an obligation to publicly condemn the actions of President Trump.' He said, 'Well, I'm disheartened by them.'" Schumer said to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Wednesday night. "To whisper to a senator behind closed doors that he's disheartened without condemning, without making a public statement is not close to enough."

And Schumer spokesperson Matt House noted the White House response on the context of Gorsuch's comments, saying it "makes an already weak response even weaker, and is further proof that the Judge has not demonstrated the kind of independence necessary to be a check on this administration."

Democrats will be critical components to his confirmation.

Because a Supreme Court nominee needs the support of 60 senators to break a filibuster, he'll need the support of eight Democrats given the current 52-48 GOP majority. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could force his nomination through with a simple majority by using the so-called nuclear option. But if he wants a smooth confirmation process, Gorsuch appears to need Democrats more than he needs Trump right now.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who sits on the Judiciary Committee which will oversee the confirmation process, said that Gorsuch's comments "certainly should" help him gain the support of Democrats.

"What he said is true — it's correct — and a good judge would take that position," Hatch said.

But this is not the first time that a Trump nominee has split with the president in a high-profile way. It has happened with multiple cabinet appointees also seeking to get confirmation.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson broke with Trump during his Senate confirmation process on Russia's invasion of Crimea. Trump has refused to criticize it but Tillerson said invading other countries "stops right here."

Tillerson was seeking the support of not only Democrats but critical Republicans, including Sens. Marco Rubio, John McCain and Lindsey Graham who had expressed reservations about Tillerson because of Trump's position on Russia.

Given the delicate dance, some Democrats are pushing back. Democratic National Committee Senior Adviser Zac Petkanas, called Gorsuch's statements "a 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," Petkanas said. "As Senator Blumenthal made clear, Gorsuch's suspicious private criticism is not nearly enough to prove he'll fulfill his duty as a check on the concerning and unconstitutional behavior of the President."

But Gorsuch, whose confirmation is being handled by led by veteran strategist and communications professional Ron Bonjean, is focusing the opening stages of his confirmation strategy on Democratic senators up for re-election in 2018 who hail from states that Trump won.

Gorsuch's first meetings have been with these senators, including Manchin, Sens. John Tester of Montana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Manchin, Tester, Heitkamp and Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, another red-state Democrat, met with the president at the White House Thursday for lunch with the president.

Simultaneously, conservative groups are spending up to $10 million in television advertisements on a public relations campaign to help persuade public support on Gorsuch, and they're focusing their first $2 million targeting those same senators.

"They can support Chuck Schumer and support the radical fringe" or they can "give (Gorsuch) a fair shot," said Carrie Severino, Judicial Council Network's chief counsel.

These Democrats are faced with a constituency who voted for them and for Trump, leaving them open to supporting the nominee and reluctant to criticize.

"I'm not talking about Gorsuch," McCaskill said this week. "I'll talk to anybody about anything, I'm not talking about Gorsuch."

An earlier version of this article said McCaskill attended lunch at the White House.