Trump disputes account of his Supreme Court nominee’s comments

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By Doina Chiacu | WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON President Donald Trump castigated a
Democratic senator on Thursday for saying U.S. Supreme Court
nominee Neil Gorsuch had voiced dismay in a private meeting over
Trump’s attacks on the judiciary, while Republicans came forward
to back up the lawmaker’s portrayal.

The Republican president has publicly vented his frustration
with a court order last week that temporarily halted his travel
ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries, criticizing
the judge who issued the order, the appeals process and the
wider judiciary. That has morphed into a dispute over comments
made by his pick for the Supreme Court.

Senator Richard Blumenthal said on Wednesday that Gorsuch
had told him that Trump’s comments about the judiciary, which
have included calling the judge who blocked his travel ban a “so-called judge,” were “disheartening and demoralizing.”

On Thursday, Blumenthal urged Gorsuch to condemn Trump’s
attacks “publicly, unequivocally and clearly.”

Trump, in a Twitter post and in a later meeting with a
bipartisan group of senators, accused Blumenthal of
misrepresenting Gorsuch’s comments.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer, at a briefing with
reporters, defended Trump and said Gorsuch had not been
commenting specifically about the president’s attacks on the

Blumenthal’s account of Gorsuch’s comments was backed up by
Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and spokesman for the
nominee, and by Kelly Ayotte, a Republican former senator who
has accompanied the judge during meetings with lawmakers to
build support for his Senate confirmation.

Other senators, including Republican Ben Sasse and Democrat
Chuck Schumer, also said Gorsuch made similar comments to them.

In blasting Blumenthal, Trump sought to revive a years-old
controversy over the senator’s military service during the
Vietnam War era.

“Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who never fought in Vietnam when
he said for years he had (major lie), now misrepresents what
Judge Gorsuch told him?” Trump wrote in a Twitter post.

Trump nominated Gorsuch, a conservative federal appeals
court judge, on Jan. 31 as his nominee to fill the Supreme Court
vacancy left when Justice Antonin Scalia died a year ago.
Democrats have said they will push to establish that Gorsuch can
exercise independence if he is confirmed to the lifetime
position on the country’s highest court.

Blumenthal said there were numerous White House staffers in
the room when Gorsuch made the comments.

Ayotte said in a statement that Gorsuch, speaking in
discussions with senators including Blumenthal, had said “he
finds any criticism of a judge’s integrity and independence
disheartening and demoralizing,” while making clear he “was not
referring to any specific case.”

Gorsuch has not made any public comment on the matter.


Sasse, who has been critical of Trump’s attacks on the
judiciary, described his meeting with Gorsuch.

“I asked him about the ‘so-called judges’ comment because we
don’t have so-called judges or so-called presidents or so-called
senators,” Sasse said on MSNBC. He added that Gorsuch “welled up
with some energy” and said any attack on his “brothers or
sisters of the robe is an attack on all judges.”

Spicer said the president had no regrets about his comments
on the judiciary and that his behavior would not change.

“The president is going to speak his mind,” he said.

A federal judge in Seattle, James Robart, last Friday put on
hold Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order that temporarily barred
entry to the United States by people from seven Muslim-majority
countries and by all refugees. An appeals court is considering
Robart’s order and is expected to rule in the coming

On Saturday, Trump called Robart a “so-called judge” whose “ridiculous” ruling “essentially takes law-enforcement away from
our country.” On Wednesday, he stepped up his criticism of the
judiciary, calling courts “so political” and describing the proceedings in the appeals court as “disgraceful.”

Democrats have called Trump’s comments an attack on a core
principle of American democracy by which the judiciary is
independent and upholds the rule of law.


Republican senators, who have the majority in the Senate, painted Gorsuch’s comments as evidence of his independence from
the president. But Schumer, leader of the Senate Democrats, said
the judge’s comments were “mild” at best and “insufficient” in
terms of showing independence.

“I think President Trump is going to harm both Judge
Gorsuch’s chances at confirmation and his standing as president
if he continues to undermine the independence of the judiciary,” Democratic Senator Chris Coons told CNN on Thursday.

Trump’s spat with Blumenthal overshadowed a meeting with
senators that was aimed at trying to build support for Gorsuch.
If confirmed, the judge would restore a conservative majority on
the Supreme Court.

“Ask Senator Blumenthal about his Vietnam record,” Trump
told reporters at the meeting.

In 2010, while running for the Senate, Blumenthal said he
had “misspoken about my service” by earlier stating he had
served in Vietnam when he in fact got military deferments before
joining the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve in 1970, allowing him to
avoid combat overseas.

Blumenthal expressed regret over his previous comments but
said he was proud of his service as a reservist.

Trump himself received five deferments during the Vietnam
War, including one for bone spurs in his heel, the New York
Times reported last August, and never served in the military.

(Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe, David Morgan, Susan
Cornwell, Lawrence Hurley, Susan Heavey and Richard Cowan)

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