As the Supreme Court confirmation heats up, Neil Gorsuch offers the first olive branch to skeptical Senate Democrats—but risks incurring the wrath of President Trump in the process.
Since Donald Trump concluded last week’s bizarre episode of Supreme Court Bachelor by nominating Neil Gorsuch to fill the Court’s vacant ninth seat, the President has managed his relationship with the judiciary with all the grace of Sean Spicer frantically shuffling papers. First, Trump teed off on the order prohibiting enforcement of his Muslim ban, grousing about the “so-called judge” in an early-morning invective that doubles as the strongest evidence yet that Trump couldn’t pass a middle-school civics test. Things got even more unhinged over the weekend, when the President ominously urged his millions of social media followers to “blame” the judge and the court system if “something happens.”
This brand of amateur-hour governance might make Trump feel better about all the Ls he’s taken of late, but it also makes life very difficult for Gorsuch, who has turned to the delicate task of convincing Senate Democrats that confirming him might not be so bad after all. Since Democrats have a million reasons to fight his nomination every step of the way, this was already going to be a difficult task before the president started lobbing social media hand grenades at the entire federal judiciary. While making the rounds on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Gorsuch took the first step in Mission: Damage Control, telling Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal that he found Trump’s comments “demoralizing” and “disheartening.”
Although Blumenthal seemed unimpressed with what he called a “milquetoast” response, Judge Gorsuch’s move is a smart one. Assuming that Senate Republicans don’t eliminate their Democratic counterparts’ ability to filibuster the nomination—hardly a given, but bear with me—Gorsuch has to convince only eight Democratic caucus members to cross party lines and support his confirmation. Luckily for him, there six Democratic senators are up for reelection in 2018 in states that went for Trump, and if those lawmakers are nervous that opposing Gorsuch might make for good attack ad fodder, they could prove susceptible to arguments for why they should vote to confirm him after all. This is a savvy and a very intentional effort to reassure senators who might be on the fence that, if confirmed, he would not be a rubber stamp for the White House that put him there.
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This dynamic cuts both ways, though: Senate Democrats, eager to derail the nomination, are looking for any opportunity to drive a wedge between the president and his nominee. If they can cajole him into further distancing himself from the president’s most legally dubious beliefs, and/or offering statements that deviate from the staunch conservative positions that earned Gorsuch the nod in the first place, Democrats will aim to undermine his credibility, trip him up during questioning, or perhaps even erode his support among far-right Republicans. In other words, both sides are trying to figure out how to use each other to win very important votes, and Gorsuch leaking the comments he made to Blumenthal is his tentative first move.
While this chess game plays out, though, the looming unanswered question is this: How the president will react to being publicly rebuked by a man that he just picked for a very high-profile job? Trump’s first salvo was directed at Blumenthal, not Gorsuch, but considering that Gorsuch’s communications director had already confirmed the judge’s comments by the time they were reported on Wednesday, how much longer until the attacks are pointed at Gorsuch himself?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Trump would rescind a nomination over this kind of thing. (Probably, at least? Who knows!) But especially if Gorsuch continues to repudiate the most extreme Trumpian positions while courting senators in the weeks to come, it’s also hard to imagine that a president who loves excoriating his allies and punishing even thoughtful, well-grounded dissent will stay silent. It’s entirely possible that this Supreme Court nominee will have to endure both grueling Senate hearings and withering subtweets from President Trump. As the confirmation process heats up, Judge Gorsuch should probably stay off Twitter for awhile, just in case.
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