Trump attacks federal judges in unusually personal terms

President Trump has launched an assault on the independence of the judiciary, accusing federal judges of playing politics by suspending his travel ban and suggesting they risk national security by restricting his ability to block visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries.

His attacks drew a striking rebuke Wednesday from appeals court Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, his nominee for the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, who called the president’s remarks disheartening and demoralizing in a meeting with a Democratic senator.

Trump punctuated a flurry of tweets and statements in recent days with a high-profile speech that marked an escalation of the president’s use of the bully pulpit by attacking judges personally.

“If these judges wanted to, in my opinion, help the court, in terms of respect for the court, they do what they should be doing,” Trump said earlier Wednesday, coaxing judges to rule in his favor with a typically free-form remark to a gathering of police chiefs in Washington.

He put on a highly public show of trying to sway the judges as well as public opinion. He read aloud 73 words of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which lays out the president’s capacity to stop legal entry into the U.S. in times of crisis, in arguing that the law gives him expansive power to block foreigners.

“A bad high school student would understand this,” Trump said.

Trump’s aggressive approach suggested he is uncertain about his prospects of winning the current case and is trying to fight back outside the courtroom. 

“This is not the president using the bully pulpit. It’s bullying,” said Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society, a progressive legal group.

“He’s trying to intimidate the judges to rule his way,” she said. “It sends an incredibly bad message that judges are simply political beings. And it’s another step toward undermining the independence of the judiciary as a bulwark in our country for defending democracy and the rule of law.”

Gorsuch told Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) that he was troubled by Trump’s comments, the senator said after they met Wednesday. 

“He certainly expressed to me that he is disheartened by the demoralizing and abhorrent comments made by President Trump about the judiciary,” Blumenthal said.

The president said he had listened to a broadcast of the arguments before judges from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and pronounced the proceedings “disgraceful.”

His remarks echoed his complaints last year during the presidential campaign when he said the judge overseeing a lawsuit over Trump University, his defunct real-estate course, could not be impartial because he was of Mexican descent.

The 9th Circuit three-judge panel will decide as early as Thursday whether to strike down or uphold a lower-court ruling suspending the enforcement of Trump’s travel ban. Several courts around the country blocked aspects of Trump’s order, but the ruling from a federal judge in Seattle on Friday halted the directive entirely.

When U.S. District Judge James L. Robart, an appointee of President George W. Bush, ruled in favor of the states suing Trump over the order, Washington and Minnesota, he pointed to a 2015 appeals court decision that blocked President Obama’s attempt to expand protections from deportation for some people in the U.S. illegally. That decision upheld that the judiciary can limit executive power.

Obama himself took heat when, during his 2010 State of the Union address, he criticized the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing lobbyists and corporations to give more freely to political causes.

“Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections,” he told the packed House chamber as the justices looked on. Justice Samuel Alito shook his head, and mouthed the words: “Not true.”

Shortly after the high court heard arguments in 2012 challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the president said he hoped the conservative justices would follow what they had said in the past and not strike down laws passed by Congress. Some saw Obama’s comments as a warning to Chief Justice John G. Roberts, who eventually cast a deciding fifth vote to uphold the law.

Trump, however, made his criticisms far more personal.

The day Robart issued his order, Trump called him a “so-called judge” on Twitter and said the ruling “essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!”

“Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!” Trump wrote the next day.

Legal experts accused Trump of trying to undermine the courts as a check on the government.

“If you’re the president, you don’t attack judges personally,” Fredrickson said. “He’s naming a judge and calling him biased, and that’s different.”

Trump picked up the line of attack Wednesday before his speech.

“If the U.S. does not win this case as it so obviously should, we can never have the security and safety to which we are entitled. Politics!” Trump tweeted.

He also called the court decision suspending his ban “horrible, dangerous and wrong.”

Civil liberties advocates and Democrats have argued that Trump’s travel ban unfairly blocks entry for Muslims, as he promised during the campaign. They see that as a violation of the constitutional restriction on the government favoring one religion over another.

Times staff writers Michael A. Memoli and David G. Savage contributed to this report.

brian.bennett@latimes.com

Twitter: @ByBrianBennett

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UPDATES:

2:45 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction from a legal expert and more comments from Trump.

This article was originally published at 1:30 p.m.

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society, as Frederickson.

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