Judge Neil Gorsuch stressed his independence and defended the integrity of the federal judiciary today 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 criticises the honesty or the integrity or the motives of a federal judge, I find that disheartening.
I find that demoralising - because I know the truth," Gorsuch told Senator Richard Blumenthal.
"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, including an Indiana-born judge of Mexican descent who handled a federal court challenge to an online university bearing Trump's name, or the President's recent comments about a "so-called" judge who ruled against his attempts to ban travelers from Muslim-dominant countries.
"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 colour. Gorsuch refused to be pinned down on most of the issues that Democrats raised: his allegiance to Roe v. 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 US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit 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 criticised by Senator Richard Durbin, 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 Senator Jeff Flake.
Gorsuch will be at the witness table again tomorrow as well as the fourth and final day of hearings scheduled for Friday.
Republicans intend to move quickly on confirming the 49-year-old Gorsuch, who sits on the Denver-based US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. Those on the committee hope to refer Gorsuch to the full Senate on April 4 so that he can be confirmed before Easter.
But Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer warned Republicans that his party would attempt to slow down consideration of Gorsuch because Republicans last year blocked then-President Barack Obama's attempts to fill the vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia's death, and because Trump's presidential campaign is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation.
Schumer said it seemed "unseemly to be moving forward so fast on confirming a Supreme Court justice with a lifetime appointment" due to the looming FBI investigation, which could potentially last for months or years.