DEMOCRACY WATCHTrump Pushes the Limits of Every Restriction He Faces – Including Threatening Judges and Their Families

By Paul M. Collins Jr.

Published 11 April 2024

Judicial independence and integrity are bedrock principles of American democracy. By personally attacking the public servants who have dedicated their lives to the American justice system, Trump has severely weakened public trust in our legal institutions. If these attacks continue, I believe they are likely to further undermine the justice system, and American democracy itself.

Donald Trump has done it again. And again.

In a series of social media posts, the former president personally attacked the daughter of the judge presiding over his criminal trial in New York state.

Among other claims, his posts include allegations that the judge’s daughter is a “Rabid Trump Hater, who has admitted to having conversations with her father about me.”

Because of this alleged bias, Trump’s attorneys have argued that Judge Juan Merchan cannot be impartial and therefore should step down from the case.

Merchan, however, didn’t see things this way. Instead, the judge extended the gag order already imposed on Trump to include attacks on family members of the judge and the prosecution team.

In response, Trump has reportedly filed a lawsuit directly against the judge, though the exact claims remain under seal with the court.

Trump’s attacks on Merchan and his daughter are just the latest in his long effort to undermine the rule of law. The attacks demonstrate his efforts to appear to play by the rules, but in reality to violate the norm of respect for the judiciary that previous presidents have followed, even when they disagreed with court decisions.

As a professor of legal studies and political science, I have extensively examined the ways in which presidents talk about judges and their decisions, and the consequences of that behavior.

Here’s why – and how – what Trump says matters.

Trump’s Playbook
In general, by alleging that his prosecutions are political, Trump is attempting to shift the public’s perception of his trials away from the due process of the justice system and toward viewing Trump himself as a victim of abuse of power by his political opponents.

To do this, Trump has been following a fairly consistent playbook in his attacks on the judges, court staff, witnesses and opposing lawyers involved in his many civil and criminal trials. He seeks to subvert the system by using its mechanisms for his own ends – which are to avoid having his day in court, rather than facing a judge and jury and seeking vindication.

First, he attacks those whom he claims are his political enemies, alleging that the various lawsuits and criminal charges brought against him are politically motivated and a form of election interference. This allows him to frame the cases in a politically advantageous way by portraying himself as the victim, seeking the support and sympathy of his electoral base.