Walter Shapiro* – The Guardian
The president thinks justice only matters as it affects him. As his defenders fall away, he may find this all too painfully true
A rational president, who had just bludgeoned Brett Kavanaugh onto the supreme court, would not jeopardize the long-awaited conservative majority by picking a fight with Chief Justice John Roberts. But rationality has never been Donald Trump’s strong suit when it comes to dealing with the judiciary.
According to an estimate by the Washington Post, the Trump administration has been overruled in more than 40 federal court decisions. While correlation does not imply causation, it does suggest that Trump’s constant bleats and tweets about biased judges represent an odd strategy to tilt the scales of justice.
Many phrases might describe Roberts’ 13 years as chief justice since he was appointed by George W Bush, but “hot-headed” is not among them. It presumably took dozens of provocations before he yielded to the temptation to instruct the president that with an independent judiciary, “we do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges”.
Trump’s concept of justice pivots around a simple question: ‘Is it good for me or bad for me?’
Nothing better illustrates Trump’s solipsistic approach to crime and punishment than the recent revelation by the New York Times that last spring he talked about ordering the justice department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey.
As he pursued such thuggish fantasies, it is possible Trump was influenced by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who had imprisoned hundreds of his political foes in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. (That, of course, was the more benevolent version of Prince Mohammed, before he became closely associated with a bone saw.)
In the American version of such a dragnet, you might see Robert Mueller confined to a room next to Elizabeth Warren with a couple of dozen recalcitrant federal judges down the hall. Of course, the incarcerated would be residing in a Trump hotel – and the president would be billing the federal government at inflated rates for its use.
With his sneering contempt for the rule of law vying with his hatred for press freedoms, it is tempting to categorize Trump as a would-be authoritarian, albeit an inept one. But I tend to be skeptical, even though I shudder at a full revelation of what lurks in the depths of Trump’s psyche.
Part of Trump’s disdain for judicial independence is probably rooted in his days as a New York real estate hustler under the tutelage of the notorious judge-fixer and ultimately disbarred lawyer Roy Cohn. In Cohn’s cynical world, the questions you asked about a judge were: “What do we have on him? Who can get to him? And what does he want?” The idea that a real estate case would be tried solely on its merits was as alien to Trump’s worldview as the quaint notion that creditors and contractors need to be paid in full.
Another factor is that Trump appears incapable of handling patriotic abstractions. It is why the ceremonial aspects of the presidency, like visiting Arlington Cemetery on Veteran’s Day and bearing witness to the first world war dead in France, seem so baffling to him. The best he can do on such solemn occasions is to woodenly read someone else’s words off a teleprompter as he flashes the thumbs-up sign.
Concepts like democracy, a free press, due process, an independent judiciary and the rule of law are lost on Trump. As far as his understanding goes, the constitution might just as well be carved in cuneiform characters on stone tablets.
Up to now, many of Trump’s worst impulses have been resisted by the saner members of his entourage, like the former White House counsel Donald McGahn, who told the president he had no authority to prosecute Clinton and Comey. Other aides in The Perils of Pauline melodrama that is playing on a constant loop in the White House have intervened to save the Mueller investigation.
But as Trump’s arrogance of power grows along with his political peril from the newly elected Democratic House, we may be close to the moment when no one is left with the power or the willingness to constrain a cornered president.
The final line of defense of democratic values are judges and top law enforcement officials who answer to a higher loyalty than fealty to Trump. It would be both bracing and ironic if the president were ultimately thwarted by black-robed figures whom he denounces as “Trump judges”.