In hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump's pick for the Supreme Court, repeatedly claimed to be above the political fray.
"I can't get involved in politics," Gorsuch said again and again.
Yet as he ducked senators' questions, a multi-million dollar campaign backing Gorsuch's nomination was underway. It includes TV ads, over a million postcards and organizing events at mega-churches, among other outreach efforts. The campaign is targeting Democratic senators up for reelection in 2018 in states that Trump carried, since they're more likely to vote for Gorsuch's nomination.
While Republicans hold a 52-48 advantage in the Senate, Gorsuch's nomination will need 60 votes to overcome a pledged Democratic filibuster. That is, unless Republicans change the rules and allow a simple majority to cut off debate on Supreme Court nominations (known as the "nuclear option").
Judicial Crisis Network
Helping lead this effort is a little-known group, the Judicial Crisis Network, which pledged to spend at least $10 million to back Gorsuch's nomination. This 'dark money' group doesn't list its donors, but appears to be tied into the network led by oil barons Charles and David Koch.
Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic senator from Rhode Island, asked Gorsuch if he knew who was behind the effort.
"Senator," he replied, "I could speculate based on what I've read and what I've heard, but I don't know individuals who are contributing. I don't know that."
"He probably knows who he owes the favor to," The New Yorker's Jane Mayer told Democracy Now.
"The thing about dark money is, often the person who it's benefiting knows; it's just the public that's not allowed to know," said Mayer, who wrote the must-read book Dark Money.
Once on the divided Supreme Court, Gorsuch could be the deciding vote in decisions effecting the wealthy interests who supported his nomination. But with his backers' identity hidden, the public will be in the dark about his potential conflicts of interest.
Prior to backing Gorsuch, the Judicial Crisis Network spent $7 million in 2016 to (successfully) thwart President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, from even getting a confirmation hearing. Now Trump has tapped Gorsuch for the seat Garland was nominated to fill, which has been vacant since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last year. Curious what the Judicial Crisis Network saw in Gorsuch that it didn't see in Garland, Whitehouse put the question to Gorsuch.
"You'd have to ask them," said Gorsuch.
"I can't because I don't know who they are," replied Whitehouse. "It's just a front group."