WASHINGTON — Judge Neil Gorsuch stressed his independence and defended the integrity of the federal judiciary Tuesday as the Senate hearings on his Supreme Court nomination turned on the search for his judicial philosophy and what one senator called "the elephant in the room" — President Donald Trump.
From the first question from a friendly Republican to a grilling by a Democrat hours later, Gorsuch was called upon on the second day of what is expected to be four days of hearings to state his impartiality and reassure senators he would not be swayed by political pressure if he wins confirmation, which appeared even more likely after his marathon session.
Gorsuch reiterated in public what he had told many senators in private — that he is offended by attacks like the ones leveled by Trump against federal judges who have ruled in the past year in cases involving him.
"When anyone criticizes the honesty or the integrity or the motives of a federal judge, I find that disheartening. I find that demoralizing — because I know the truth," Gorsuch told Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
"Anyone including the president of the United States?" Blumenthal asked, who had made the elephant-in-the-room comment.
"Anyone is anyone," Gorsuch said.
Gorsuch declined, however, to comment specifically on Trump's various critical comments about federal judges.
"I've gone as far as I can go ethically," Gorsuch told Blumenthal.
It was a dramatic moment in a day that for the most part lacked color. Gorsuch refused to be pinned down on most of the issues that Democrats raised: his allegiance to Roe vs. Wade, his views on money in politics, the extent of the Second Amendment.
He portrayed what Democrats saw as controversial rulings in his 10 years on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver as authentic attempts to interpret the laws that Congress writes.
"If we got it wrong, I'm very sorry, but we did our level best," he said about a decision criticized by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., but added: "It was affirmed by the Supreme Court."
Republican senators did little more than set Gorsuch up to display an encyclopedic knowledge of the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent, and to allow him to stress his roots as an outdoorsy Westerner.
"What's the largest trout you've ever caught?" asked Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Gorsuch will be at the witness table again today as well as the fourth and final day of hearings scheduled for Thursday
Gorsuch seemed happy at the outset of the hearing to take what even he called the "softball" question offered by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, about whether he would have any trouble ruling against Trump, the man who nominated him.
"I have no difficulty ruling against or for any party other than based on what the law and the facts of a particular case require," Gorsuch told the panel. "And I'm heartened by the support I have received from people who recognize that there's no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge — we just have judges in this country.
"My personal views … I leave those at home," he added later.
The Columbia-Oxford-Harvard graduate employed a homespun tone — "gosh," "golly" and "nope" punctuated his answers. Corny dad jokes fell flat, especially with the Democratic senators.
They pressed him on abortion, gun rights, privacy and the protracted 2000 presidential campaign recount. As other Supreme Court nominees have, Gorsuch explained that it would be improper to give his views on cases that might come before him or to grade decisions made in the past.
He had a tense encounter with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who sparred with him on issues of campaign finance and "dark money," including a $10 million campaign by the group Judicial Crisis Network to advocate for Gorsuch's confirmation.
Whitehouse said the group's donors do not have to be disclosed, and he wondered what they saw in Gorsuch that would warrant such an expenditure.
"You'd have to ask them," Gorsuch said.
"I can't because I don't know who they are," Whitehouse shot back.
When Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., mentioned that a Republican lawmaker recently suggested that Gorsuch would uphold Trump's ban if it came before the court, Gorsuch snapped: "Senator, he has no idea how I'd rule in that case."
Other senators quizzed Gorsuch about several of Trump's past statements. During the presidential campaign last year, Trump said that he would nominate people to the Supreme Court who would overrule Roe vs. Wade and return decisions on abortion back to the states.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Gorsuch whether Trump had asked him to do that during his interview before his nomination.
"Senator, I would have walked out the door," Gorsuch replied.