Inside the historic Eisenhower Executive Office Building, one room has been transformed to mimic the scene Neil Gorsuch will face next week before the Senate Judiciary Committee — bright lights and all.
The Supreme Court nominee is digging through his own voluminous record of legal opinions and undergoing “murder boards” to practice answering pointed questions from 20 probing senators. Some of his former law clerks have been enlisted for hearing prep.
And there are plenty of times when Gorsuch is studying and preparing alone.
“He’s a judge’s judge,” former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who has guided Gorsuch through his confirmation process as his so-called sherpa, said in an interview. “So he’s been spending a lot of time reviewing case law and reviewing his cases and also participating in some mock hearings.”
Gorsuch and his team are undertaking the extensive and closely guarded preparations for his confirmation hearings starting Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. His performance will help determine whether President Donald Trump’s nominee hands ammunition to his Democratic opposition or glides toward confirmation.
The stakes are high for both sides, but especially for Republicans. For Trump, it’s a chance to notch a big win after a rocky start to his presidency. He’s looking to fulfill a key campaign promise to conservative voters initially wary of his unorthodox candidacy and leave his stamp on the court for generations with the 49-year-old Colorado jurist.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is waiting to see whether his final chapter of his controversial blockade of Merrick Garland last year will pay off with a conservative replacing the late Justice Antonin Scalia. And Senate Democrats face a consequential fight in which they can wield significant power, with at least eight of their members needed to break an expected filibuster of Gorsuch’s nomination. A successful filibuster could prompt Republicans to invoke the “nuclear option” and kill the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees.
“We’re going to be very, very engaged,” one of the nominee’s most vocal Democratic opponents, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, said Tuesday. The battle over Gorsuch is “extremely important to so much of what America is about, including the basic premise of our Constitution: a ‘we the people’ vision of America versus a ‘we the powerful and privileged’ version that Gorsuch really stands for.”
So Gorsuch is getting ready.
Preparations for the confirmation hearings have been coordinated primarily by White House counsel Don McGahn’s office, with logistics arranged by Ayotte and her team. Those aiding Gorsuch’s prep have reviewed confirmation hearings for past Supreme Court nominees to determine what kinds of questions arise during the high-profile, televised grilling sessions.
Other clues about what Gorsuch can expect have come from the senators themselves.
“He’s met with more than 70 senators, he’s had in-depth discussions with them, and one of the points he’s made to me certainly [is], that process has been very helpful in learning what’s on the minds of each senator,” Ayotte said.
Since Gorsuch was nominated Jan. 31, his team has interspersed hearing preparations with his meet and greets on Capitol Hill. He has met with 72 senators in total, but Ayotte said Gorsuch won’t hold any one-on-ones with senators this week as he enters the final stretch before the showdown before the Judiciary Committee.
Ayotte declined to describe in detail who is questioning Gorsuch in the mock sessions, aside from saying the participants are “legal experts and people with backgrounds that have an understanding in the law.” The prep sessions have varied in length, with the group sometimes having to shuffle around the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to find a room to use.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are preparing to protect Gorsuch and fend off attacks from Democrats with plans for an elaborate “war room” operation in the Hart Senate Office Building. It will be staffed with about 10 aides who will be ready to respond to any criticism from Democrats they find objectionable.
“It’ll be primarily responding to what the Democrats raise,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of the Senate GOP’s chief strategy during the hearings, which are expected to last three or four days. “They’re going to ask him a lot of questions that he can’t ethically answer.”
The Republican National Committee will also spearhead a parallel war room meant to ensure Gorsuch’s reputation emerges unscathed — while turning the screws on swing Democratic votes under political pressure to vote yes.
The coordination among conservative groups has been going on for weeks. The RNC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and outside organizations such as America Rising and the Judicial Crisis Network connect every morning on a Supreme Court-themed conference call to strategize. The groups also met in person last week at the RNC headquarters.
The coalition has been partnering with party apparatuses in strategically chosen states to promote Gorsuch through local radio and television hits, letters to the editor and digital campaigns, said RNC spokesman Rick Gorka. Topping their target lists: The 10 Democrats running for reelection in states that Trump won last November, as well as Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Tim Kaine of Virginia.
“It’s been a very seamless team effort on this,” Gorka said. The RNC has raised $250,000 through Gorsuch-related emails and had nearly 300,000 people sign a “Stand With Gorsuch” petition. (Elsewhere on Wednesday, liberal groups opposing Gorsuch are planning to drop off petitions with roughly 850,000 signatures, urging senators to block his confirmation.)
Judicial Crisis Network, the deep-pocketed outside group that’s now in the middle of a $10 million ad campaign promoting Gorsuch’s confirmation in key states, recently brought on former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) to ramp up lobbying in the Senate for Trump’s nominee. Kyl also lent a hand during the confirmation of his former colleague, ex-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), as attorney general.
Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director for the Judicial Crisis Network, said Kyl — who served on the Judiciary Committee for years — was ideal to aid the group’s efforts.
Both Gorsuch’s backers and detractors have had plenty of material to examine. For one, the judge has written 240 opinions, including 175 in the majority, during his decade in the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He’s participated in about 2,700 cases.
But the confirmation hearings will take the war over Gorsuch to a new phase.
“I’m excited to hear Judge Gorsuch have an opportunity to speak directly to the American people,” said Severino, a former clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas. “This way, people have an opportunity to hear from him and not mischaracterizations of his record from the Democrats.”
Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.
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