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By Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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.
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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 judiciary.
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.
'ATTACK ON ALL JUDGES'
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 days.
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.
GORSUCH CAUGHT IN STORM
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 would 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; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Tom Brown and Frances Kerry)