Had he not launched broadsides against the news media at his Tuesday press conference, Donald Trump’s tirade against the judge presiding over the fraud cases against his Trump University might have been the lead story that day. Instead, it was to some extent overshadowed by his thin-skinned hissy fit over the temerity of the press to shame him into making good on his pledges to give money to veteran’s groups. But a lot of people were also alarmed by his willingness to challenge the integrity of a federal court. It wasn’t hard for many of his critics to jump to the conclusion that a President Trump would not respect the independence of the judiciary or allow the federal government to enforce decisions with which he disagreed.
It’s hard to argue with those who think that might be the case but I think those who focus on Trump’s racially tinged attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel are misunderstanding him. I don’t think Donald Trump has a specific agenda to undermine the separation of powers among the three coequal branches of the federal government or even to specifically target Hispanic judges. I doubt that such a thought ever crossed Trump’s mind. The huffing and puffing from legal experts about this is giving him too much credit. What’s on display here is not a Trump versus the judiciary agenda. What we’re seeing is something far broader and far more personal. The real conflict is between Donald Trump and anyone who doesn’t do as he says; whether it’s a reporter, a judge, a government official, or even just someone who has the temerity to publicly criticize or demonstrate against him. And that is something that will have far greater implications than a mere anti-judiciary obsession.
Even if we knew nothing about Trump’s long public career before he entered the presidential race last year, the pattern of conduct is clear. If you do what Trump wants you to do — agree with him or support him — he’ll leave you alone. Though, even if you are prepared to play his lapdog, you should expect to be told when your presence is no longer wanted in a rather abrupt way (get on that plane and go home, Chris Christie). But anyone who crosses him in any way about anything should expect him to throw the kitchen sink at them. Trump calls himself a “counter-puncher,” which allows him to pose as a perpetual victim. In his world, he is never the aggressor and only responds to attacks.
But as the objects of his ire on Tuesday understood, that actually isn’t true. The press did not attack Trump about his contributions to groups aiding veterans. It had merely asked whether the money had been sent and who was getting it. This was just normal accountability and any clear-headed businessman or politician would have taken it in his stride or, even better, used it as an opportunity to draw more attention to his generosity. But not Trump. To question or even to remind him of previous statements — which almost always contradict subsequent remarks — is akin to an insult in his mind. And since Trump’s instinct is to repay any perceived slight or insubordination with a nuclear response intended to devastate, humble, and force the other person into submission, that’s what anyone who dares oppose him should expect, no matter what their job might be.
Of course, if Trump were to launch a vendetta against the judicial branch, he would hardly be the first president to do so. President Obama publicly insulted the Supreme Court to their faces during a State of the Union speech because he was irritated by their defense of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech in the Citizens United decision. To be fair, Republicans skewered Chief Justice John Roberts twisting himself into a pretzel in order to avoid ruling that ObamaCare was unconstitutional despite the illogic of his opinion. That’s just politics, and so long as no one violates the laws and the rulings they don’t like, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it.
Far more troubling would be if Trump decided to emulate the populist president to which many of his backers compare him: Andrew Jackson. Though the Congress passed an Indian Removal Act that forced the Cherokee Nation off of the lands granted in previous treaties with the United States, in Worcester v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, invalid, and illegal. But the removal of the Indians continued anyway since Jackson supposedly said in response to the ruling, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his ruling, now let him enforce it.” Such shameless defiance of the rule of law ought to be impossible in our era, but if anyone has the chutzpah to try it, it would be Trump.
Again, that misses the point about the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Trump is no more interested in restraining the power of an independent judiciary that he is of defying Congress or picking fights with international trade partners, allies or enemies for that matter. I don’t doubt that when he says he wants good relations with everyone, he may actually mean it when the words leave his mouth. But you don’t have to have a degree in psychology or even have done a deep dive into his biography or his business record to understand that the one thing we already know about him is that he will not brook dissent or disagreement. Give him what he wants and you’ll be fine. Defy him and watch out. When he was asked at his Tuesday presser — where he delivered a bizarre confrontational rant in which he called journalists liars and sleazes for having the nerve to ask questions he didn’t want to answer — that it would be any different when he was president, he wasn’t kidding. There will be no pivot to a more responsible Donald Trump in the general election. This is who he is and that will not change.
Of course, this quality or at least his willingness to fight dirty against political opponents or to trash the media is exactly what a lot of grass roots Republicans love. But the thing about a guy who wages nuclear war against all critics and opponents is that sooner or later he’s going to attack his own side too.
Despite all the wailing about how unprecedented it would be to have a president who criticizes judges, that’s actually not too unusual though we have never had a president who acted that way about personal lawsuits rather than political decisions. Trump would certainly be the most litigious president in our history. But what is uncharted territory is what it would be like to have such a thin-skinned authoritarian personality with absolutely no impulse control sitting in the Oval Office. The implications are not just for the separation of powers but for the rule of law.
It’s hard to imagine what it would mean for relations with the other branches of government and mind-boggling when one considers its impact on foreign policy. Since there are no guide rails to Trump’s insatiable demand for obedience, there is no reason to expect him to respect any limits or be willing to practice forbearance if a foreign leader were to defy him. Those arguing that Trump would be a faithful friend to Israel (or at least more faithful than Hillary Clinton) should think about what would happen in a scenario where a stubborn Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thwarted his hubristic desire for a peace deal.
So all the fears about a President Trump not respecting the independence of the judiciary are not quite accurate. Trump wouldn’t respect anyone that opposed him. It would be a bold new world for everyone, and not just “Mexican” judges.