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In His Own Words: The President’s Attacks on the Courts

Donald Trump has displayed a troubling pattern of attacking judges and the courts for rulings he disagrees with.

Last Updated: February 14, 2020
Published: June 5, 2017
President Trump
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Donald Trump has displayed a troub­ling pattern of attack­ing judges and the courts for rulings he disagrees with — a pattern that began during his pres­id­en­tial campaign (and even before), and has contin­ued into his pres­id­ency.

This threatens our entire system of govern­ment. The courts are bulwarks of our Consti­tu­tion and laws, and they depend on the public to respect their judg­ments and on offi­cials to obey and enforce their decisions. Fear of personal attacks, public back­lash, or enforce­ment fail­ures should not color judi­cial decision-making, and public offi­cials have a respons­ib­il­ity to respect courts and judi­cial decisions. Separ­a­tion of powers is not a threat to demo­cracy; it is the essence of demo­cracy.

Collec­ted below are examples of Trump’s public state­ments attack­ing indi­vidual judges and ques­tion­ing the consti­tu­tional author­ity of the judi­ciary, includ­ing his state­ments on Twit­ter. It will be updated with new state­ments.

Attack on Justices Sonia Soto­mayor and Ruth Bader Gins­burg

On Febru­ary 24, Trump targeted U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sonia Soto­mayor and Ruth Bader Gins­burg, demand­ing that the two justices should recuse them­selves from any cases that he is involved in.

The attacks came after Justice Soto­mayor authored a dissent criti­ciz­ing the Supreme Court’s decision to tempor­ar­ily block a lower court ruling prevent­ing the Trump Admin­is­tra­tion from deny­ing green cards to immig­rants based on their use of public bene­fits like Medi­caid, SNAP, and hous­ing assist­ance. In her dissent in Wolf v. Cook County, Justice Soto­mayor wrote that putting a lower court’s decision on hold while the govern­ment appeals that decision is an “extraordin­ary” act, appro­pri­ate only when the govern­ment can show urgent and irre­par­able harm if their request is not gran­ted. Soto­mayor said that, “Claim­ing one emer­gency after another, the govern­ment has recently sought stays in an unpre­ced­en­ted number of case­s…And with each success­ive applic­a­tion…its cries of urgency ring increas­ingly hollow.” “It is hard to say what is more troub­ling: that the Govern­ment seek this extraordin­ary relief seem­ingly as a matter of course, or that the Court would grant it,” Soto­mayor wrote.

Trump also targeted Justice Gins­burg in this attack over comments she made during his 2016 campaign, in which she said, “ I can’t imagine what this place would be — I can’t imagine what the coun­try would be — with Donald Trump as our pres­id­ent.”

Attack on Judge Amy Berman Jack­son Follow­ing the Roger Stone Case

In Febru­ary 2020, Trump attacked Judge Amy Berman Jack­son, the judge who is presid­ing over his former adviser Roger Stone’s pending crim­inal case in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Last Novem­ber, Stone was convicted of lying to congress, witness tamper­ing, and obstruct­ing an invest­ig­a­tion by the U.S. House of Repres­ent­at­ives. The attacks came after the Depart­ment of Justice recom­men­ded a sentence of 7–9 years for Stone. In a series of tweets published in Febru­ary, Trump criti­cized this recom­mend­a­tion, and as a result, the Depart­ment of Justice indic­ated it would seek a shorter sentence for Stone, prompt­ing four career prosec­utors to with­draw from the case. Judge Jack­son Berman is sched­uled to make a final ruling in Stone’s case on Febru­ary 20.

Attacks on the Judi­ciary Follow­ing Asylum Ruling

In Novem­ber 2018, Trump announced new rules that would bar anyone cross­ing the U.S.-Mexico border not through an offi­cial port of entry from receiv­ing asylum. On Novem­ber 20, Judge Jon Tigar of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered the admin­is­tra­tion to accept asylum claims regard­less of where migrants entered the coun­try. Trump called the decision “a disgrace,” attacked Tigar as “an Obama judge,” and critiqued the Ninth Circuit as “really some­thing we have to take a look at because it’s not fair,” adding, “That’s not law. Every case that gets filed in the Ninth Circuit we get beaten.”

In a rare response, Chief Justice John Roberts told the AP that the U.S. does­n’t have “Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clin­ton judges. What we have is an extraordin­ary group of dedic­ated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appear­ing before them.” Roberts added that “The inde­pend­ent judi­ciary is some­thing we should all be thank­ful for.”

Trump respon­ded on Twit­ter, defend­ing his claim and again ques­tion­ing the impar­ti­al­ity of the Ninth Circuit:


Trump then sugges­ted break­ing up the Ninth Circuit, a move that a Rep. Darrell Issa [R-CA] proposed in Septem­ber 2018.


The day after Roberts’ response, Trump contin­ued to refute the Chief Justice and decried “Judi­cial Activ­ism”:

Carter Page FISA Applic­a­tion

On July 22, 2018, the Trump Admin­is­tra­tion released a previ­ously clas­si­fied Foreign Intel­li­gence Surveil­lance Act (FISA) warrant applic­a­tion regard­ing Trump’s former foreign policy campaign adviser, Carter Page. Organ­iz­a­tions like Judi­cial Watch had sued for its disclos­ure. Trump took the release as an oppor­tun­ity to falsely claim the Page surveil­lance precip­it­ated special coun­sel Robert Mueller’s invest­ig­a­tion, to argue that the wiretap applic­a­tion relied too heav­ily on the unveri­fied Steele dossier, and to argue that Mueller’s invest­ig­a­tion must end. In a series of tweets, Trump first claimed that the Depart­ment of Justice and FBI “misled the courts”:

 

Then Trump used the words of conser­vat­ive writer Andrew McCarthy to directly attack the judges who author­ized the FISA applic­a­tion:

Attacks on the Judi­ciary Follow­ing DACA Ruling

On Tues­day, Janu­ary 9th, 2018, District Court Judge William Alsup tempor­ar­ily blocked the Trump admin­is­tra­tion from ending the Deferred Action for Child­hood Arrivals (DACA) program, main­tain­ing protec­tions for 'Dream­ers.' The Trump admin­is­tra­tion appealed Alsup’s decision. Follow­ing Alsup’s ruling, Trump tweeted:

Critique of the Berg­dahl Ruling

Bowe Berg­dahl, a former U.S. Army soldier, walked away from his unit and was captured by the Taliban in 2009. From 2009 to 2014, he was held captive by the Taliban. In 2014, the Obama admin­is­tra­tion brokered a pris­oner exchange, and ulti­mately, the Taliban released Berg­dahl in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detain­ees. 

Trump, while on the campaign trail, repeatedly critiqued the exchange. 

In one speech, Trump argued,

“So we get a traitor named Berg­dahl—a dirty rotten trait­or—who, by the way, when he deser­ted, 6 young, beau­ti­ful people were killed trying to find him, and you don’t even hear about them anymore. Someone said the other day, well, he has some psycho­lo­gical prob­lems – well, you know, in the old days, bing, bong—when we were strong, when we were strong. So we get Berg­dahl, a traitor, and they get 5 of the people that they most wanted anywhere in the world, 5 killers that are right now back on the battle­field, doing a job. That’s the kind of deals we make.”

Follow­ing these comments, Berg­dahl’s lawyers filed a motion in 2016 to dismiss the charges pending against him, arguing that Trump’s comments precluded Berg­dahl from receiv­ing a fair trial. This motion was rejec­ted. Ulti­mately, Berg­dahl pleaded guilty to charges of deser­tion and misbe­ha­vior in Octo­ber of 2017; on Novem­ber 3, 2017, Berg­dahl was sentenced to a dishon­or­able discharge, a reduced rank, and a monthly fine, but did not receive a prison sentence. In response, Trump tweeted,

Attacks on the Judi­cial System in Response to Terror­ist Attacks

On Tues­day, Octo­ber 31st, 2017, a terror­ist attack in Manhat­tan led to eight deaths and several seri­ous injur­ies. The suspect said he drew inspir­a­tion from ISIS. On Novem­ber 1st, 2017, Donald Trump made the follow­ing state­ment in response, call­ing the courts a “joke” and a “laugh­ing­stock.” Trump also said he would “certainly consider” send­ing the suspect to the U.S. milit­ary prison in Guantá­namo Bay. Trump stated: 

"That was a horrible event, and we have to stop it, and we have to stop it cold. We also have to come up with punish­ment that’s far quicker and far greater than the punish­ment these anim­als are getting right now. They’ll go through court for years. And at the end, they’ll be — who knows what happens.

We need quick justice and we need strong justice — much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it’s a laugh­ing­stock. And no wonder so much of this stuff takes place. And I think I can speak for plenty of other coun­tries, too, that are in the same situ­ation."

 

Trump followed this state­ment with a Tweet:

Trump then switched from advoc­at­ing the suspect be sent to Guantá­namo Bay, to advoc­at­ing he receive the death penalty.

 

Attacks on Courts, and Judges Person­ally, for Stay­ing Immig­ra­tion Exec­ut­ive Orders

On Friday, Febru­ary 3, 2017, Wash­ing­ton U.S. District Court Judge James Robart issued a decision tempor­ar­ily stay­ing enforce­ment of Donald Trump’s Janu­ary 27 exec­ut­ive order limit­ing immig­ra­tion from seven predom­in­antly Muslim coun­tries and halt­ing the admis­sion of refugees from anywhere. On Febru­ary 9, the Ninth Circuit denied the govern­ment’s request for a stay of the district court’s order. Trump issued a revised version of the immig­ra­tion exec­ut­ive order on March 6, 2017, which narrowed the scope to six coun­tries and exemp­ted green card and visa hold­ers, among other changes. On March 15, 2017, a federal judge in Hawaii tempor­ar­ily blocked enforce­ment of the order nation­wide, followed by a March 16 order by a federal judge in Mary­land. On May 26, the Fourth Circuit, sitting en banc, upheld the stay of the travel ban.

Trump has made a series of tweets and public state­ments attack­ing the decid­ing judges person­ally, ques­tion­ing the author­ity of federal courts to review his orders, suggest­ing the court is biased, and suggest­ing that the judges and court system would be to blame for future terror­ist attacks.

Comments Concern­ing March 6 Exec­ut­ive Order

On June 3, 2017 and again on June 5, 2017, follow­ing a terror­ist attack in London over the week­end, the Pres­id­ent tweeted the follow­ing state­ments:

He has also said the follow­ing state­ments over the course of the last few months at public events, speeches, and tele­vi­sion inter­views:

“We’re also taking decis­ive action to improve our vetting proced­ures. The courts are not help­ing us I have to be honest. It’s ridicu­lous. Some­body said I should not criti­cize judges, Okay, I’ll criti­cize judges. To keep crim­in­als and terror­ists the hell out of our coun­try, we are keep­ing these prom­ises and many, many more.”

“Moments ago I learned that a district court in Hawaii, part of the much over­turned Ninth Circuit Court. And I have to be nice, other­wise I’ll be criti­cized for speak­ing poorly about our courts. I’ll be criti­cized by these people, among the most dishon­est people in the world,…for speak­ing harshly about our courts. I could never want to do that.”

“This is an unpre­ced­en­ted judi­cial over­reach. The law and consti­tu­tion allows the pres­id­ent to suspend immig­ra­tion when he or she…­for­tu­nately it won’t be Hillary she, when he or she deems it to be in the national interest of our coun­try.”

“I know you aren’t skep­tical people. You don’t think this was done by a judge for polit­ical reas­ons do you? This ruling makes us look weak, which we no longer are, believe me.”

“We are going to fight this terrible ruling…we’re going to win…we’re going to keep our citizens safe.”

“People are scream­ing break-up the Ninth Circuit…that Ninth Circuit, you have to see, take a look at how many times they have been over­turned with their terrible decisions. Take a look. And this is what we have to live with.”

Comments Concern­ing Janu­ary 27 Exec­ut­ive Order

“I don’t ever want to call a court biased, so I won’t call it biased…But courts seem to be so polit­ical.”

 

 

Comments Follow­ing Barcelona Terror­ist Attack

Follow­ing a terror­ist attack in Spain, Trump made the follow­ing tweets on August 18. Trump argued his travel ban would prevent terror­ist attacks, but for Demo­crats “us[ing] the courts” to preclude his agenda.

 

 

 

Attacks on Courts for Block­ing Sanc­tu­ary City Exec­ut­ive Order

On Tues­day, April 25, Cali­for­nia U.S. District Judge William Orrick III gran­ted a prelim­in­ary injunc­tion, block­ing the imple­ment­a­tion of Donald Trump’s exec­ut­ive order with­hold­ing federal funds from “sanc­tu­ary cities”—those that limit how they cooper­ate with the federal govern­ment to deport immig­rants lack­ing legal status.

Follow­ing the ruling, Trump made a series of tweets criti­ciz­ing the courts and Judge Orrick. Although Trump’s comments refer­enced the Ninth Circuit, it was the U.S. District Court, which sits within the Ninth Circuit, that issued the relev­ant order.

The White House also issued a state­ment, saying “the rule of law suffered another blow, as an unelec­ted judge unilat­er­ally rewrote immig­ra­tion policy for our Nation.” It contin­ued: “This San Fran­cisco judge’s erro­neous ruling is a gift to the crim­inal gang and cartel element in our coun­try, empower­ing the worst kind of human traf­fick­ing and sex traf­fick­ing, and putting thou­sands of inno­cent lives at risk.” Finally, it closed by call­ing the decision “yet one more example of egre­gious over­reach by a single, unelec­ted district judge.”

On April 26, Trump gave an inter­view in which he said he has “abso­lutely” thought about break­ing up the Ninth Circuit. He contin­ued: “Every­body imme­di­ately runs to the 9th Circuit. And we have a big coun­try. We have lots of other loca­tions. But they imme­di­ately run to the 9th Circuit. Because they know that’s like, semi-auto­matic.” He also said: “You see judge shop­ping, or what’s gone on with these people, they imme­di­ately run to the 9th Circuit," and that “what’s going on in the 9th Circuit is a shame."

 

Calls for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Gins­bur­g’s Resig­na­tion

During the 2016 pres­id­en­tial campaign, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Gins­burg made comments call­ing Donald Trump, then the presumptive Repub­lican pres­id­en­tial nominee, “a faker” and stat­ing “I can’t imagine what the coun­try would be – with Donald Trump as our pres­id­ent.” Donald Trump respon­ded in a series of tweets describ­ing Justice Gins­burg as an “incom­pet­ent judge” and call­ing for her resig­na­tion.

Accus­a­tions that U.S. District Court Judge Curiel Is Biased

In response to U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo O. Curi­el’s orders in a class action lawsuit against Trump Univer­sity, then-pres­id­en­tial candid­ate Trump made a number of state­ments attack­ing Judge Curiel as biased because of his “Mexican herit­age” and appoint­ment by a Demo­cratic pres­id­ent. 

Donald Trump said on CNN: “I’ve been treated very unfairly by this judge. Now, this judge is of Mexican herit­age, I’m build­ing a wall!” Trump contin­ued: “He’s a member of a soci­ety where – you know – very pro-Mexico and that’s fine, it’s all fine, but I think – I think – he should recuse himself.”

Trump’s Rhet­oric About Courts Prior to Running for Pres­id­ent

Donald Trump’s tweets prior to announ­cing his pres­id­en­tial candid­acy display similar rhet­oric target­ing indi­vidual judges and the judi­ciary. Select examples are provided below.