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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.