While all of Donald Trump’s attempts to belittle and delegitimize the judiciary have exposed his disrespect for our Constitution and rule of law, Trump’s tweet calling on Americans to "blame" the federal judge who suspended his Muslim ban "if something bad happens" caused many observers to question whether this time his rhetoric constituted a thinly-veiled threat.
During his weekend away at his Florida Mar-A-Lago estate, Donald Trump renewed his attacks on federal court Judge James L. Robart, who had recently suspended enforcement of Trump's immigration ban:
Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 5, 2017
Coming on the heels of the White House having deleted the Judicial Branch subpage from the White House website (it was returned after outcry) and Trump’s attack on Judge Robart (who was appointed by President George W. Bush) as a "so-called judge," this most recent statement appeared to be an escalation of his efforts to diminish the authority of the judicial system in the eyes of American citizens.
Historically, leaders with authoritarian designs have undermined any institutions that present checks on their power, including judicial and legislative bodies and the media. Such leaders have often engaged in delegitimizing rhetoric in advance of formally eliminating such entities, generally using the justification of national security to do so.
Accordingly, many observers, including myself, interpreted Trump's phrasing as demonstration of Trump’s intent to attack the system of checks and balances and to potentially move the nation toward an authoritarian form of governance:
This is Trump telegraphing an intent to weaken or abolish judicial power if (when) there is a terrorist attack:https://t.co/rsCuZWaj8b
— Leah McElrath (@leahmcelrath) February 5, 2017
Former CIA spokesman and Department of Defense press secretary, George Little:
Shocking and dangerous statement by the President of the United States. https://t.co/CU4EOWfTsn
— George Little (@georgelittledc) February 5, 2017
Attorney formerly with the National Security Agency, Susan Hennessey:
This is the President lying about threats to assert that the rule of law (as opposed to authoritarian control) makes us less safe. https://t.co/lkBGPPgOn4
— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) February 5, 2017
Conservative columnist and former National Security Agency analyst, John Schindler:
Really, who needs a judicial branch anyway? Swamp could be drained much faster if POTUS had ALL FedGov authority.https://t.co/FD2ECgO0x1
— John Schindler (@20committee) February 5, 2017
Conservative author and Naval War College Professor, Tom Nichols:
Imagine if Obama had said: "Next terror attack isn't my fault. Stupid GOP judges and stuff."
There'd be an impeachment bill by sundown.
— Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom) February 5, 2017
Former Obama speech-writers, Jon Lovett and Jon Favreau:
Trump signaling his intent to blame checks on his power for terrorist attacks is his most explicit threat against our democratic system yet. https://t.co/mn1KCWI3RG
— Jon Lovett (@jonlovett) February 5, 2017
It's infuriating that @SpeakerRyan and other Republicans believe their political agenda is worth excusing Trump's authoritarian threats.
— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) February 5, 2017
Washington Post journalist, Greg Sargent:
Trump now makes it clear that if there's a terror attack, he'll use it to undermine judicial checks on his power. https://t.co/BAhwhRZw4l
— Greg Sargent (@ThePlumLineGS) February 5, 2017
National reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Matt Pearce:
I wonder what happens to our court system under this president if we have a major terrorist attack. https://t.co/FKNItHq2oc
— Matt Pearce 🦅 (@mattdpearce) February 5, 2017
The president is trying to undermine the integrity of the entire court system over an executive order that nobody in Congress seems to like.
— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) February 5, 2017
Whether we choose to take Trump seriously and literally in this particular tweet, his ongoing derogatory rhetoric about federal jurists manifests a chilling disregard for our system of checks and balances. At a minimum, between governing by executive order and delivering despotic pronouncements, Trump seems determined to push the limits of separation of powers in an effort to expand his own.