Two years ago this week, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump derided US District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, hearing a lawsuit against Trump University, for his “Mexican” heritage and complained of being “railroaded” by the legal system.
It was shocking, Democrats and Republicans alike condemned Trump’s racially intemperate criticism of the Indiana-born judge.
Turns out, it was nothing.
Over the past 24 months, Trump has scorned judges, derided the American court system, and trampled on all manner of constitutional principles. Trump has especially ridiculed due process of law, the bedrock against government’s arbitrary denial of a person’s life, liberty or property.
Critics warn that denunciations that once seemed so aberrational may be seeping into the American psyche and influencing how government operates.
Last week, Trump suggested immigrants at the border could be summarily deported without any hearing to determine if they deserved asylum or were US citizens wrongly apprehended. In a Fox News interview that aired May 24, Trump flatly deemed the system of immigration judges “corrupt” and said, “Whoever heard of a system where you put people through trials? Where do these judges come from?”
The administrative system, in fact, is part of Trump’s executive branch, run by the Justice Department; the attorney general appoints immigration judges.
In the same interview, Trump responded to the NFL policy prohibiting kneeling during the “Star-Spangled Banner,” with a message for players who refuse to stand for the anthem: “Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”
Such an attitude inflames controversy over league rules for players protesting racial injustice to intimations of government rejection of its citizens - for speaking out.
Due Process. Citizenship. Racial Equality. Trump’s targets seem to merit none of these. It is not lost on Trump’s detractors that he routinely takes aim at immigrants and racial minorities.
At the same time, the President expresses outrage over what happens to the men of his world.
When his former staff secretary Rob Porter was accused by two ex-wives of domestic violence, Trump emphasized in February to the news media, “He says he’s innocent.” Then in a tweet, Trump wrote: “Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused - life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?”
In April, Trump referred to an FBI raid on the home and office of Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen, executing a court-approved subpoena, as “an attack on our country … an attack on what we all stand for.”
And on Sunday, he tweeted, without explanation:
“Who’s going to give back the young and beautiful lives (and others) that have been devastated and destroyed by the phony Russia Collusion Witch Hunt? They journeyed down to Washington, D.C., with stars in their eyes and wanting to help our nation…They went back home in tatters!
Trump continued the pattern again on Thursday as he pardoned conservative author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, who in 2014 pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign finance law.
D’Souza, a Trump ally who also promoted conspiracies related to former President Barack Obama, had been charged with using straw donors to contribute to a New York Republican Senate candidate in 2012. Again, Trump challenged the established processes of America’s justice system, declaring in a tweet about D’Souza: “He was treated very unfairly by our government!”
Trump also told reporters Thursday that he is considering pardoning Martha Stewart and pardoning or commuting the sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
If Trump’s norm-shattering derision of the courts and constitutional principles has only accelerated in the past two years, public responses appear more polarized. Opponents are overwhelmingly Democratic. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans remains high.
There also may be fatigue. Trump is constant. His questioning Thursday of a legal process for people apprehended at the border drew scant public response.
Long before he was a candidate, Trump was known for complaints about the justice system and incendiary rhetoric. He railed against five black and Latino men accused (and wrongfully convicted) for a 1989 rape of a jogger in New York’s Central Park. Trump bought full-page ads in New York newspapers proclaiming, “Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police.” Even after the men were exonerated, he suggested they were guilty.
The difference now, of course, is that he is America’s top leader. So last fall, when he tweeted that an Uzbekistan man who was charged with killing eight pedestrians and bikers in New York City “SHOULD GET THE DEATH PENALTY,” some law professors and analysts wondered if the President’s comments would hurt the government’s legal case.
Trump sets a tone for the whole country - a reality that spurred Republican op-ed columnist Michael Gerson, a former aide to President George W. Bush, to pen a scathing assessment earlier this month.
“Whatever else Trumpism may be,” Gerson wrote in The Washington Post, “it is the systematic organization of resentment against outgroups. His record is rich in dehumanization. … This is more than a disturbing pattern; it is an organizing political principle. And it has resulted in a series of radiating consequences.”
As one of many examples, Gerson pointed to West Virginia GOP Senate candidate Don Blankenship’s statement that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was creating jobs for “China people.” (His wife, Elaine Chao, was born in Taiwan.)
“The Trump era is a renaissance of half-witted intolerance,” Gerson concluded, urging Republican leaders to challenge Trump. (The President endorsed one of Blankenship’s opponents and Blankenship lost the primary.)
If such protests from the right are rare, the left has tried to remain energized.
The stream of Trump rhetoric against due process “is exhausting, yet requires us to remain vigilant,” said Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Gupta said an overriding concern is that dehumanizing language and attacks on minorities influence administration policy “The daily hits to due process are real and it is dangerous for any of us to accept this as normal,” she said.
Irrespective of how responses have evolved over the past two years, Trump has not deviated from his personal script.
As he declared in May 2016, when many of his comments were rallying fans and roiling critics, “You think I’m going to change? I’m not changing.”
This story has been updated with Thursday’s developments on presidential pardons.