Legal Experts Alarmed by Trump’s Assault on Justice System
Policy + Politics

Legal Experts Alarmed by Trump’s Assault on Justice System

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean president Kim Jong Un and other international “big men” who have seized and wielded power while trampling over human rights and the judicial and criminal justice system. 

Throughout his relentless march to the Republican presidential nomination this year, Trump has at times shocked his audiences with his anything-goes assault on long cherished government norms and legal protections. 

He vowed to roundup and deport 11 million illegal immigrants despite an array of due process and constitutional barriers that might block such an enterprise. He escalated his feud with reporters and news organizations that have criticized him – including The Washington Post and The New York Times – by threatening to seek an easing of libel laws if he becomes president. 

Related: Clinton Finds Her Voice on Trump: Withering Criticism, With a Side of Mockery 

Trump has also said that he would restore the use of “water-boarding” and other forms of torture to extract intelligence from captured terrorists, and order the retaliatory killing of family members of ISIS terrorists. And he has promised to prevent Muslims other than U.S. citizens from entering the country until the government gets a better handle on terrorists’ threats. 

Now the bombastic billionaire is shaking up the legal community by stepping up his public attacks on a federal judge of Mexican heritage who is presiding over lawsuits brought against the now defunct Trump University that charge fraud of thousands of students. 

Legal observers fret that Trump’s escalating attacks on U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel of California -- who has refused to dismiss the civil case against Trump and former school officials and has released hundreds of pages of testimony damaging to Trump’s business reputation -- pose a dangerous affront to the independent judiciary. 

In an interview Thursday with The Wall Street Journal, Trump insisted that Curiel, a U.S-born citizen whose parents immigrated from Mexico, had “an absolute conflict” in presiding over the high-profile case  given that he was “of Mexican heritage” and a member of a Latino lawyer’s association. 

Related: Clinton’s Strategy From Now On: Baiting the Trump Bull 

Trump at one point suggested that Curiel came from Mexico  -- which wasn’t true – and argued yesterday that his Mexican heritage was highly relevant, because of Trump’s campaign attacks on illegal immigrants and his pledge to build a wall along the southern border to keep out other undocumented immigrants. 

“I’m building a wall,” Trump told the newspaper. “It’s an inherent conflict of interest” on the part of the judge. 

Trump is also rattling the cage of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Democratic party by threatening – if he wins -- to order the Justice Department to seek indictments against  Clinton unless she is charged before the end of the year for gross mishandling of highly sensitive State Department email.   

The State Department’s Inspector General last week issued a stinging critique of Clinton’s mishandling of her email messages by using a private email server, in contravention of revised departmental regulations. The FBI, meanwhile, is well along in an investigation of whether Clinton or any of her aides violated criminal law. 

Related: Obama’s Final Campaign Begins in Earnest with Assault on Trump 

During a rambling speech at a rally in San Jose, California Thursday evening, Trump insisted that Clinton has closely embraced most of President Obama’s policies to avoid being charged by the Justice Department. “The only reason she’s been dragged so far left – believe me – is she doesn’t want to go to jail over the emails, okay?” Trump bellowed. “I have watched so many lawyers, watched so many different networks, I have read so much about the emails. Folks, honestly, she’s guilty as hell.” 

 “And the fact that they even allow her to participate in this race is a disgrace to the United States, it’s a disgrace to our nation,” he added to a cheering gathering. “So, we’ll see what happens … I’ve always had great confidence in the FBI …I can’t believe they will let this go.” 

“And you know what? If they do let her get away with it, it will be a big topic of conversation on the campaign trail,” he said. “And then if I win, there’s a five year statute of limitation. Everything is going to be fair, but I’m sure the Attorney General [he picks] will take a very tough look at it, from a fair standpoint, okay?”

Trump has issued similar warnings in the past, including a March 30 interview with David Muir of ABC News in which he said that, if elected, “I would probably appoint people that would look very seriously at her email disaster.” 

Related: We Now Know Hillary Lied Multiple Times About Her Email Server 

He also has threatened to take action against Judge Curiel, an Obama administration appointee, after he wins election in November. Trump has denounced the judge as “a hater of Donald Trump” and a “disgrace.” 

 “But we will come back In November,” Trump said recently at a rally in San Diego. “Wouldn’t that be wild if I am President and come back and do a civil case? Where everybody likes it? Okay. This is called life, folks.” 

 Trump’s menacing remarks about the judge and Clinton’s email case – as well as his frequent contemptuous comments about reporters and news organizations – are highly troubling to many legal experts concerned about the First Amendment, the rule of law and the separation of powers.

The New York Times reported on Friday that while many in the GOP Republican establishment are reluctantly lining up behind him – including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who belatedly announced his support yesterday – many conservative and libertarian legal scholars “warn that electing Mr. Trump is a recipe for a constitutional crisis.”

Related: Trump May Need a Thicker Skin in Going After Clinton

“Who knows what Donald Trump with a pen and phone would do?” Ilya Shapiro, a lawyer with the libertarian Cato Institute, said in an interview with the newspaper. .

“You would like a president with some idea about constitutional limits on presidential powers, on congressional powers, on federal powers,” added Randy E. Barnett, a prominent conservative law professor at Georgetown University, “and I doubt he has any awareness of such limits.”

Congressional GOP leaders – including Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) -- say that they are confident that Trump will soften his tone and respect the rule of law if he defeats Clinton in November. “He’ll have a White House counsel,” McConnell told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Monday. “There will be others who point out there’s certain things you can do and you can’t do.”

However, in her foreign policy address in San Diego on Thursday, Clinton repeatedly warned that Trump has a “very thin skin” and is prone to lash out at his adversaries or critics.  “This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes,” she said, “because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.”