Trump Time Capsule #7: ‘The Judge, We Believe, Is Mexican’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Donald Trump at a rally in March, with a sign depicting his promised Wall. (Jonathan Drake / Reuters)

It’s increasingly evident that something is seriously wrong with Donald Trump. That would be his own business, and his own problem, except for the chance that he could become the next president and thus be in position to command major regulatory, investigative, and military powers. As a reminder, during this period when Trump could still become president, and when more and more of the Republican party is deciding to deem him acceptable, the items in this series are for-the-record notes of things he does and says that no real-world president would or should.

Daily Trump #7: May 27, 2016, the “Mexican” judge.

Reid Epstein of the WSJ has a riveting account of Trump’s speech yesterday in San Diego. Epstein’s account is the more powerful because he is so obviously trying to keep it deadpan, and let the facts and words of Trump’s statements speak for themselves.

The three crucial facts the story conveys are: 1) that Trump spent a full 12 minutes of his speech, an eternity in rally-time, in a personalized complaint about an ongoing fraud lawsuit against his Trump University; 2) that he did not argue the merits so much as dismiss the legitimacy of the suit and the judge hearing it, and in fact threatened retaliation against the judge; and 3) that among his complaints was that the federal judge was “Mexican.” That judge, Gonzalo Curiel, was born in Indiana, received his undergraduate and JD degrees from Indiana University, and has spent his entire life and career in the United States. That career includes working as an assistant U.S. Attorney in California and as a drug-offense prosecutor there.

Samples from the story:

“I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump, a hater. He’s a hater. His name is Gonzalo Curiel,” Mr. Trump said, as the crowd of several thousand booed….

To the San Diego crowd, Mr. Trump argued that Judge Curiel should be removed from the case because he is biased against him. The evidence Mr. Trump presented: Rulings against him and the fact that Judge Curial was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama. The Senate confirmed Judge Curiel by a voice vote in September 2012 [that is, with no recorded opposition]….

Mr. Trump also told the audience, which had previously chanted the Republican standard-bearer’s signature “build that wall” mantra in reference to Mr. Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border, that Judge Curiel is “Mexican.”

“What happens is the judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great. I think that’s fine,” Mr. Trump said.

Judge Curiel was born in Indiana….

“I think Judge Curiel should be ashamed of himself,” Mr. Trump said. “I’m telling you, this court system, judges in this court system, federal court, they ought to look into Judge Curiel. Because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace, OK? But we’ll come back in November. Wouldn’t that be wild if I’m president and I come back to do a civil case? Where everybody likes it. OK. This is called life, folks.”

***

What’s wrong here? Why is this something that would be considered out of bounds for real-world presidents or serious contenders? In ascending order of importance:

- The temperament question. Before a crowd of cheering thousands, with the GOP nomination all but assured, Trump still cannot resist taking the bait and rebutting any perceived slight. Can you imagine Dwight Eisenhower behaving this way? Lincoln? Reagan? FDR of course joked about criticism of “my little dog, Fala.” But he joked, to huge laughs and applause, in a wry little turn as opposed to a genuinely angry tirade. It is striking how rarely we hear actual humor of this sort from Donald Trump, as opposed to “comic” insults.

- “Mexican.” Trump was careful to say that there’s nothing “wrong” with being Mexican (when, again, he was referring to a person of completely American background). But in a rally where people are chanting “build the wall!” this was not a mere by-the-way comment.

Imagine a comparison: suppose this case went to the Supreme Court, and Trump got a ruling against him written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And suppose he then said, “she happens to be, we believe, a Jew, which is great, I think that’s fine. Actually, though people don’t like to talk about it, three of the Democrat appointees on the Court who voted against me are Jews. Nothing wrong with it, I’m just saying.”

Aspirants to lead a big, diverse nation cannot talk this way. Richard Nixon did in private, but that was considered a scandal when it came out on his White House tapes. Political campaigns have long used various degrees of racial coding and shading. But we have seen nothing comparable to Trump’s public crudeness from a presidential nominee since at least the time of George Wallace, who in 1968 carried the deep South and won a total of 46 electoral votes.

- Contempt for the system. Individual Americans can feel, and say, that “the system is rigged” — judicially, electorally, economically. Complaints about unfairness are very frequently the basis of political campaigns, as in different ways we see in the Sanders, Trump, and other movements this year.

But when the results of an established process turn against them, presidents and presidential aspirants must defend the process. That’s the difference between rule-of-law and rule-of-men. Richard Nixon disagreed with the Supreme Court’s rulings against him but did not question their legitimacy or say he would try to get back at the Justices. Al Gore had far better logical and jurisprudential grounds for questioning the ruling in Bush v. Gore, but while he made clear that he bitterly disagreed, he of course complied. He did not mention the ethnicity of the Justices or say that they should be “looked into.”

A president cannot suggest, as Trump is doing here, that his personal interests or vendettas come ahead of the systems of democratic government that a president is sworn to “preserve, protect, and defend.” I am not aware of any institution, tradition, or system that Trump has ever placed above his own interests or impulses. The speech in San Diego is the latest stark example.

This is outlier behavior and must not be “normalized.”

***

This “Trumpcast” podcast, by Jacob Weisberg of Slate and Peter Sagal of Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me (the podcast was produced by Andy Bowers’s Panoply Media), is very interesting on the challenge for journalists like Weisberg, and satirists/comedians like Sagal, of trying to treat candidates “evenly” when one of them, Trump, is simply different from anyone who has received a nomination before. Thanks to reader Karen W for the tip.