WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump lobbied Democrats and Republicans to back his Supreme Court nominee on Thursday even as he escalated his attacks against one of their Senate colleagues for disclosing that Judge Neil Gorsuch found the president's criticism of the judiciary "demoralizing and disheartening."
In a day of political whiplash, Trump insisted that Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal "misrepresented" comments from Gorsuch, who expressed misgivings about the president's attacks on a judge. Gorsuch's comments were first reported by Blumenthal, but were subsequently confirmed by two other senators who heard versions of the same thing, and verified by the White House-appointed handlers shepherding Gorsuch around Capitol Hill.
Nevertheless, sitting at a White House lunch between two of Blumenthal's Democratic colleagues, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Trump took the opportunity of a shouted question from a reporter to lash out at Blumenthal, dredging up a years-old controversy in which the former Marine Corps reservist apologized for falsely saying he had served in Vietnam.
"What you should do is ask Sen. Blumenthal about his Vietnam record that didn't exist after years of saying it did. Ask Sen. Blumenthal about his Vietnam record," Trump said. "He misrepresented that just like he misrepresented Judge Gorsuch."
Blumenthal, D-Conn., defended himself in a series of interviews on Thursday, insisting that he had correctly characterized Gorsuch's reaction to Trump's attacks against a "so-called judge," as the president described the Seattle judge who put a stay on his refugee travel ban.
"This issue is way bigger than me or even Judge Gorsuch's nomination," Blumenthal told The Associated Press when asked about Trump lashing out at him. "What's at stake is the independence and integrity of the court system and a core constitutional principle — the independence and integrity of our judiciary."
Trump's complaints about what Blumenthal said Gorsuch said came even as other Democrats offered their own complaints about Gorsuch's reported comments, albeit for totally different reasons. With the White House hunting for eight Democratic votes to get Gorsuch across a confirmation hurdle in the Senate, Democrats accused the judge of participating in a White House "ruse" to pretend to be independent from the president by claiming to be demoralized by his attacks on the judiciary.
"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 Zac Petkanas, senior adviser at the Democratic National Committee.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said on the Senate floor of Gorsuch: "What he did does not show independence. It shows a desire to appear independent."
It was not clear whether Trump made much headway in his lunch with senators including Heitkamp, Manchin, No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn of Texas, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and others. Heitkamp and Manchin emerged to speak of a productive meeting that touched on topics including infrastructure and opioid abuse, but they refused to address the awkwardness of sitting by as the president gave a colleague a tongue-lashing.
Trump seemed particularly interested in making nice with Manchin, the one Democrat to vote for his attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, going in for a hug at the start of the lunch and opening his remarks by thanking Manchin "for having the courage to vote for somebody who's really very outstanding."
Four of the Senate Democrats in the lunch — Manchin, Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Jon Tester of Montana — are staring down difficult re-election campaigns next year in states where Trump dominated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. The Democrats' success in their re-election fights could determine their party's ability to counter Trump's agenda for the remainder of his term.
Tester later told home-state reporters on a conference call that Trump's rhetoric isn't helpful and Blumenthal is a hard-working and respected man. "The president has this reaction when people challenge him. It's the way it is," Tester said.
Even as drama unfolded at the White House, Gorsuch himself, a mild-mannered Denver-based appellate judge, continued to traverse the corridors of the Senate office buildings across from the Capitol, paying courtesy calls to senators while ignoring reporters' questions. GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was full of praise after meeting with Gorsuch, adding that while she hadn't asked him to reiterate his concerns about Trump's attacks on the judiciary, "I am confident that Judge Gorsuch could be, will be, an independent judge."
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly in Washington and Matt Volz in Helena, Montana, contributed.