There is a notion of the U.S. judiciary as apolitical, as composed of—in the formulation of the current Supreme Court chief justice—impartial umpires calling balls and strikes. This is a useful, even necessary, fiction that previous presidents have seen fit to promote, even when they weren’t happy about it, in the service of preserving an independent judiciary and a functioning system of constitutional checks and balances.
Not long ago, jurists and legal scholars were scandalized when Barack Obama used his 2010 State of the Union address to reproach the Supreme Court for its decision in Citizens United, which opened the spigots of campaign finance. Not since FDR in 1937, some said, had a president so egregiously transgressed against the independence of the judiciary! But Obama’s admonishment was sufficiently mild—he didn’t accuse the justices of making an overtly political decision, or of acting in bad faith—that the only reaction from the Court itself was a slight shaking of the head and a furrowing of the brow by Samuel Alito, a display that was itself criticized as unbecomingly political for a Supreme Court justice. Chief Justice John Roberts remained silent.
How genteel that all now seems—because the current president has been unrestrained in his criticism of judges and court decisions with whom he disagrees. And he disagrees with them a lot, as they have repeatedly rebuked him on everything from his policy of separating families at the southern border to his Muslim travel ban to his crackdown on “sanctuary cities” to his ban on transgender people in the military. (Actually, Trump has been seeking to undermine court decisions since even before he took office, such as when he implied, in 2016, that the rulings of U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, presiding over a class-action lawsuit against Trump University, were illegitimate because he is “Mexican.” Curiel was born in Indiana.)