Donald Trump has indicated that he will continue to criticise the judiciary, even after attacks on judges were condemned as “disheartening” and “demoralising” by his own US Supreme Court nominee.
Neil Gorsuch had already spoken out in private after comments by the president, and on Tuesday did so publicly at a Senate hearing to confirm his appointment.
Later, in a speech on Tuesday night, President Trump indicated that his approach was unlikely to change.
“The courts are not helping us, I have to be honest with you, it’s ridiculous. Somebody said I should not criticise judges, OK, I’ll criticise judges,” he said at a dinner in Washington.
Trump has used Twitter to criticise, in his words, the “so-called” judge who halted his first travel ban. Later he tweeted again that he could not believe a judge would put the country “in such peril”, and that “if something happens blame him and the court system”.
Previously, during the election campaign, he had cast aspersions on the “Mexican heritage” of another judge.
‘Disheartening and demoralising’
The president announced his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacant seat seat in the US Supreme Court at the end of January.
During the Senate hearing on Tuesday, the nominee was questioned by Democratic Party Senator Richard Blumenthal, who drew his attention to last month’s two tweets.
Neil Gorsuch said that criticism of judges was “fine” and the fact that presidents had tried to “pack the court” was “part of our constitutional history”.
He then went on:
“But Senator, when you attack the integrity or honesty or independence of a judge – their motives – as we sometimes hear… Senator, I know the men and women of the federal judiciary – a lot of them. I know how hard their job is, how much they often give up to do it, the difficult circumstances in which they do it. It’s a lonely job, too. I’m not asking for any crocodile tears or anything like that, I’m just saying I know these people and I know how decent they are. And when anyone criticises the honesty, integrity or motives of a federal judge… well, I find that disheartening. I find that demoralising, because I know the truth.”
Blumenthal then asks: “‘Anyone’, including the President of the United States?”
“Anyone is anyone,” Gorsuch replies.
“When anyone criticizes” a federal judge “I find that disheartening. I find that demoralizing,” Neil #Gorsuch tells
SenBlumenthal</a> <a href="https://t.co/RutUjGUTRX">pic.twitter.com/RutUjGUTRX</a></p>— PBS NewsHour (NewsHour) March 21, 2017
Pushed further, Gorsuch agreed with the assertion that even the president was not above the law, but refused to go further on Trump’s particular tweets.
“Isn’t that reference by the President – to a so-called judge – isn’t his attack on the same judges who struck down that order as plain politics… isn’t that an attack on the judiciary, on its integrity?” Senator Blumenthal asked.
“Senator, I can’t comment on specific cases, and I can’t get involved in politics. I’ve said what I think I ethically may in this area,” Neil Gorsuch replied.
‘Wrong and misleading’
The White House seized on the Gorsuch’s reluctance to mention the president by name to deliver an alternative interpretation of the nominee’s words.
When the Associated Press tweeted that Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch had publicly called President Trump’s attacks on judges “disheartening”, “demoralising”, Sean Spicer replied with a tweet of his own.
“Wrong and misleading: he (Gorsuch) spoke broadly and never mentioned any person,” the White House spokesman said.
Wrong and Misleading: he spoke broadly and never mentioned any person https://t.co/8uZtq45BWl— Sean Spicer (@PressSec) March 21, 2017
NPR reported that Gorsuch clarified his comments when questioned by another Democratic senator, saying he was not “merely” speaking broadly, but was “speaking about anyone”.
‘My own man’
If confirmed by the Senate, Gorsuch would restore the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, with the Republicans also in control of Congress and Trump in the White House.
Republicans have praised the 49-year-old as highly qualified for the lifetime appointment. Democrats however have questioned his suitability, with some portraying him as favouring corporate interests and insufficiently independent from Trump.
At the Senate hearing, Gorsuch asserted his independence from the president, saying “I am my own man”.
The nominee was asked whether he would have “any trouble ruling against a president who appointed you”.
“I have no difficulty ruling against or for any party, other than based on what the law and facts in the particular case require,” Gorsuch replied. “I’m heartened by the support I have received from people who recognise that there’s no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge. We just have judges in this country.”
The seat Gorsuch was nominated to fill has been empty since the death of justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. Last year the Senate refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace him.
Neil Gorsuch would not be drawn on what he thought of a series of contentious issues, on subjects including the right to abortion, gun control, political spending and religious rights. He did say that gay marriage, legalised by the Supreme Court in 2015, was “absolutely settled law”.
The confirmation hearing is scheduled to last through Thursday, with a vote on Gorsuch’s nomination expected on April 3.