Did Neil Gorsuch distance himself from Donald Trump? It's complicated

Now we have the debate over the debate on federal judges, and one judge in particular.

If there’s ever been a time when a Supreme Court nominee criticized—or at least appeared to criticize—the president who picked him, I don’t recall it.

The reported comments by Neil Gorsuch, in private meetings with senators, will only boost his standing, in my view, by casting him as a champion of an independent judiciary.

But the remarks fueled what was already a storm of criticism of President Trump for taking on the Seattle judge who blocked his temporary travel ban. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post all led with Gorsuch’s comments yesterday, and there have been endless segments on CNN and MSNBC.

The president, not one to let a slight go unanswered, used Twitter to hit back at Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat who went public with what Gorsuch had told him.

Trump also got into a Twitter spat with Chris Cuomo over the CNN anchor’s interview with Blumenthal.

My initial reaction when I heard about this was that perhaps Blumenthal was betraying a personal conversation. But then I realized that Gorsuch is savvy enough to know that such remarks would become public. The senator told MSNBC he had Gorsuch’s permission to report on their conversation. And Gorsuch made similar remarks to other senators.

The New York Times said Gorsuch “privately expressed dismay on Wednesday over Mr. Trump’s increasingly aggressive attacks on the judiciary, calling the president’s criticism of independent judges ‘demoralizing’ and ‘disheartening.’”

Washington Post: “President Trump’s escalating attacks on the federal judiciary drew denunciation Wednesday from his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, who told a senator that the criticism was ‘disheartening’ and ‘demoralizing’ to independent federal courts.”

But Trump told reporters yesterday, “You misrepresented his comments totally. His comments were misrepresented and what you should do is ask Senator Blumenthal about his Vietnam record that didn’t exist after years of saying it did. So ask Senator Blumenthal about his Vietnam record.”

In 2010, the Times disclosed that while candidate Blumenthal had claimed to have served in Vietnam, he actually served in a Marine Reserve unit in Washington.

After Chris Cuomo interviewed Blumenthal on CNN’s “New Day,” Trump tweeted: “Chris Cuomo, in his interview with Sen. Blumenthal, never asked him about his long-term lie about his brave ‘service’ in Vietnam. FAKE NEWS!”

Cuomo responded by playing a clip of him asking Blumenthal about Trump’s criticism that “you misrepresented your military record in the past,” adding: “The president with all due respect is once again off on the facts.” (Blumenthal ducked the question and Cuomo didn’t press the point.)

Bottom line: What did Gorsuch say, and what did he mean by it?

Blumenthal apparently added the word “abhorrent” as his own commentary. But a Gorsuch spokesman confirmed that the judge said he was disheartened, and Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who is working with the White House on the nomination, said Gorsuch used the words disheartened and demoralizing.

But Ayotte also said, in a version pressed by Sean Spicer, that Gorsuch was not referring to any particular case and was expressing general concern for the independence of the judiciary.

This is how it’s done, folks.  Neil Gorsuch sent a signal—an unambiguous signal—that he will be an independent justice, even when ruling on cases involving the president who chose him. And he wanted that message out.

But he has the camouflage of saying he was speaking generally rather than specifically criticizing Trump.

Now he gets to do it again, in front of the cameras, at his confirmation hearing.