Courts Need to Respond to Trump’s Efforts to Intimidate Judges and Undermine Judicial Legitimacy


On Thursday, Donald Trump crossed another line in his continuing effort to discredit anyone associated with efforts to hold him legally accountable for his conduct. One day after Judge Juan Merchan, who is presiding over Trump’s New York hush money trial, decided that the trial could commence on April 15, the former president took to Truth Social to unleash a scathing, but by now familiar, attack on the judge and the prosecutor in that case and also on Merchan’s daughter.

If any ordinary citizen said the kind of things that Trump said in that post, they would likely find themselves in a heap of trouble and even be held in contempt of court. But not Trump.

Donald Trump, a report from Project Democracy notes, “is the rare criminal defendant who has no interest in exercising his right to remain silent. To the contrary, one of Trump’s primary defense strategies is to use his criminal indictments as fodder for his presidential campaign by attacking the prosecutions—including the prosecutors, judges, witnesses, and court employees—as politically motivated, and portraying himself (and by extension his supporters) as the victim of ‘weaponized justice.’”

Trump displays his contempt for the judiciary openly (except when courts decide cases in his favor) and treats it as a badge of honor. He uses that contempt not only to rally his base, but also to send the message that if he is returned to the White House, he will neither defer to, nor show respect for, judges who do not give him what he wants.

Such contempt is a well-known tool used by authoritarian rulers to intimidate judges and erode their independence and impartiality. As Salon’s Simon Malloy puts it, “If you want to get your clearest look at Donald Trump the authoritarian, you have to look at how the presumptive Republican presidential nominee approaches the judiciary. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that a Trump presidency would be a constitutional crisis waiting to happen, given how little he respects (or understands) the concept of an independent and co-equal judicial branch.”

Trump’s campaign to intimidate judges, prosecutors, and others involved in his legal troubles has coincided with a dramatic escalation in threats of violence directed against those he criticizes. So far, the judges whom Trump has insulted have not found an effective way to control him. They have tolerated his in-court antics, imposed only limited gag orders, and generally have turned the other cheek to even the most outrageous insults.

What Trump posted on March 28 exemplifies Trump’s brazen disrespect for the courts that would judge him and his effort, as former federal judge Michael Luttig says, to show “that those institutions are no longer legitimate.”

That post began with an attack on Judge Merchan, whom Trump called “a very distinguished looking man, [who] is nevertheless a true and certified Trump Hater.” Merchan, Trump said, “suffers from a very serious case of Trump Derangement Syndrome. In other words, he hates me!”

“Judge Juan Merchan” he continued, “is totally compromised, and should be removed from this TRUMP Non-Case immediately.” But Trump didn’t stop there.

“His Daughter, Loren,” Trump claimed, “is a Rabid Trump Hater, who has admitted to having conversations with her father about me, and yet he gagged me. She works for Crooked Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Adam “Shifty” Schiff, and other Radical Leftists who Campaign on “Getting Trump,” and fundraise off the “Biden Indictments”—including this Witch Hunt, which her father “presides” over, a TOTAL Conflict—and attacking Biden’s Political Opponent through the Courts.”

And, as a report in The Independent noted, Trump then “pivoted towards accusing the justice of ‘viciously’ going after his former Trump Organization chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, who was jailed by Judge Merchan in 2023 after being found guilty of tax offenses.”

Merchan, Trump claimed, threatened Weisselberg:

Either you cooperate or I’m putting you in jail for 15 years. He pled, and went to jail for very minor offenses, highly unusual, served 4 months in Rikers, and now they are after him again, this time for allegedly lying (doesn’t look like a lie to me!), and they threatened him again with 15 years if he doesn’t say something bad about “TRUMP.” These COUNTRY DESTROYING SCOUNDRELS & THUGS HAVE NO CASE AGAINST ME. WITCH HUNT!

“Country Destroying Scoundrels & Thugs”— who could say that about the judge in a case in which they were a defendant and get away with it? No one but Trump.

And while he was at it, he again attacked the prosecutor in the hush money case, Manhattan District Attorney Alan Bragg.

“In this Country,” Trump wrote, “we have the Right to Justice for All. As Andy McCarthy stated, ‘We should think of Bragg as falsifying his Prosecution’ and, as Jonathan Turley said, ‘It’s illegally pathetic—THERE WAS NO CRIME!’ Virtually every Legal Scholar says it’s not a case, has never been brought before, it’s not criminal, and it shouldn’t exist except for the fact that we have a Biased, Conflicted, and Corrupt Judge and D.A. in charge.”

“Biased, Conflicted and Corrupt”—who could say that about the prosecutor and judge in a case in which they were being tried and get away with it? No one but Trump.

While Trump claims that such comments are protected speech, they fit squarely within the ambit of what has long been considered punishable as contempt of court. As the 18th-century English judge Lord Harwicke explained, “There are three different sorts of contempt. One kind of contempt is scandalizing the court itself. There may be likewise a contempt of this court, in abusing parties who are concerned in causes here. There may be also a contempt of this court, in prejudicing mankind against persons before the cause is heard.”

Contempt, Harwicke noted, includes remarks that were “libelous or calculated to bring the court into disrepute.” There cannot, he concluded, “be anything of greater consequence, than to keep the streams of justice clear and pure, that parties may proceed with safety both to themselves and their character.”

Last week’s outburst about Trump’s hush money trial confirms that he is, as Boston Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr wrote in October, “on a contempt mission.” In response, judges need to use the broad latitude that law gives them“to protect the integrity of judicial proceedings, which includes the safety of court personnel, witnesses, and jurors.”

What Atkins Stohr wrote last year is even more applicable today.

“There is no better time than now,” she said, “for the court system he has repeatedly disparaged to hold him accountable. His contempt for the administration of justice should be met with contempt orders and all the appropriate penalties that go with them, including jail time. Not only is Trump not above the law, he is not above the administration of justice.”

Atkins Stohr recognized that “a contempt order against him will swiftly be held up by Trump and his supporters as proof of this false narrative.” But she rightly asked, “So what?”

Silence or acquiescence in the face of Trump’s effort to intimidate judges and undermine judicial legitimacy is, as she noted, “far worse.” It is time for judges to “hold Trump to the same standard as any other litigant.”

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