Donald Trump is so fundamentally ignorant about the democracy he now leads, it is possible that he was not aware just how disturbing it was that he engaged in a Twitter attack on a federal judge who issued a temporary restraining order blocking implementation of Trump’s travel ban.
But that attack — in which he questioned the legitimacy of the “so-called” judge (a well-respected George W. Bush appointee) and suggested that any terror attacks that occur can now be blamed on that judge and the court system — was, even for Trump, wholly out of bounds.
Some Republicans, who have seemed content to let Donald be Donald as long as they get political power, have even rebuked the president. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “I think it’s best not to single out judges for criticism. I think it’s best to avoid criticizing judges individually.”
“We don’t have so-called judges … we don’t have so-called presidents, we have people from three different branches of government who take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska.
Trump doesn’t seem to think a federal judge has the right to review executive branch decisions. “What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?” Trump whined, as if there were no protections against people with bad intentions coming into the U.S. before his poorly drafted and disastrously implemented order was put in place.
But judicial review of executive actions is a cornerstone of the system of checks and balances that protects American democracy — as most of us learned in grade school. The three branches of government are separate but equal, each with a role to play in ensuring that the U.S. Constitution is adhered to.
When U.S. District Judge James Robart issued a temporary restraining order, he found that Trump’s immigration ban would harm residents of the states that brought the lawsuit (Washington and Minnesota) as well as the operations of public universities and that the states would likely prevail in the lawsuit.
In the ruling, Robart wrote a passage that Trump should have read before going off on his Twitter tirade: “The work of this court is not to create policy or judge the wisdom of any particular policy promoted by the other two branches. That is the work of the legislative and executive branches and of the citizens of this country who ultimately exercise democratic control over those branches. The work of the Judiciary, and this court, is limited to ensuring that the actions taken by the other two branches comport with our country’s laws, and more importantly, our Constitution.”
Though given Trump’s lack of an attention span and fondness for television, maybe he’d absorb the lesson better by watching Schoolhouse Rock’s video explaining the separation of powers, especially this stanza:
No one part can be
more powerful than any other is.
Each controls the other you see,
and that’s what we call checks and balances.
Trump, with his damaged personality, has a pathological reaction to anyone who stands up to him and tells him he has crossed a line. It appears to provoke him at a very base level, prompting him to lash out fiercely and bitterly — even when doing so is counter to his own interests (you know, like repeatedly attacking a Gold Star family). That’s an unfortunate personality trait in a normal human being. It is a horrible trait for a president, who needs to be able to handle criticism with a rational response.
The courts will not always side with Trump. With any luck, they will rarely side with Trump, especially when he is pushing grossly un-American proposals such as this travel ban. Or when his administration takes actions that violate vital environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
Americans should hope that Congress, also, will not always side with Trump — though Republicans show very little sign of growing spines. A president needs to be able to handle this kind of normal opposition and deal with it within the constitutional framework — not by insulting and attempting to delegitimize co-equal branches of government.
The kind of responses we’ve seen from Donald Trump in these first couple of agonizingly long weeks of his very young administration — such as insinuating that our court system should be held responsible for any terror attacks — are the kind that may well result in a constitutional crisis.
I doubt Trump even realizes the chaos he is sowing or understands the long-lasting damage he could do to this nation. Hopefully, congressional and judicial leaders do — and will rise up to stop him if necessary.
Radmacher is former editorial page editor of The Charleston Gazette and The Roanoke Times. This Land is a weekly column produced by Appalachian Mountain Advocates.