As former President Trump’s legal problems mount, he is frequently lashing out at a familiar target: judges.
Trump has taken aim at the judge overseeing the civil case involving the writer E. Jean Carroll, deriding him as a “Clinton-appointed judge.”
The former president has also claimed the judge handling the hush money case brought against him by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg “hates” him.
It is not a new tactic for Trump, who throughout his presidency would question the motives or legitimacy of court rulings. But it is notable at a time when his 2024 campaign for the White House has included vows for “retribution” for those who feel they have been wronged by the government.
When Trump was indicted in Manhattan for his alleged role in a hush money scheme during the 2016 campaign, the former president wasted little time painting the New York state judge in the case as partisan.
Trump posted multiple times about Judge Juan Merchan on his Truth Social platform, referring to him as a “Trump Hating Judge,” and claiming Merchan “HATES ME.”
When asked about the comments, Trump’s lawyer, Joe Tacopina, said he had no reason to question Merchan’s credibility.
More recently, Trump has taken aim at federal Judge Lewis Kaplan, who oversaw the civil case brought against Trump by Carroll, the writer who alleged the former president raped her in a department store dressing room in the 1990s.
“This Clinton appointed Judge, Lewis Kaplan, hated President Donald J. Trump more than is humanly possible,” Trump posted after a jury found him liable for defamation and sexual abuse. “He is a terrible person, completely biased, and should have RECUSED himself when asked to do so. He quickly refused! This case should never have been allowed to be tried in this completely partisan venue, perhaps the worst for me in the Nation!”
Previously, Trump has lambasted the judge who oversaw the Paul Manafort case, derided some jurists who ruled against him as “Obama judges” and suggested a judge’s Mexican heritage meant he was potentially biased against him.
The attacks have alarmed the legal community, where observers have noted that Trump has a team of lawyers who can seek to fight any number of the decisions he has deemed unfair, rights available to any defendant but much more feasible for him than most.
“Irresponsible attacks in social media, that are based on misinformation or untruths or merely designed for partisan gain … do damage to our justice system. They undermine the rule of law and the system we have in place to provide justice for all,” said Marcy Kahn, who spent more than 30 years on the bench and now is the head of the New York City bar’s Task Force on the Rule of Law.
“There’s a huge cost to the people who are caught up in this and who are the focus of the untrue statements. And this is really, really dangerous when there is no effort to be restrained about it, and when the person speaking has great influence over a great number of people who, for whatever reason, feel aggrieved and angry and are looking for some target to displace their anger on.”
Judges, like all government officials, have seen an increase in threatening communications in recent years.
The number of threats against federal judges hit about 4,500 in 2021, following the Jan. 6 riot and claims the election was stolen. Those figures jumped again in 2022, to more than 5,000, according to the U.S. Marshals Service, which tracks both threats and inappropriate communications against federal judges.
Kahn noted that Merchan and his family received death threats after Trump criticized him.
The episode also disrupted the entire courthouse, requiring officers to provide “extra security to all affected staff members.” Bragg’s office later chose to remove staff bios from their website.
Separately, a bomb threat interrupted the beginning of proceedings for the $250 million civil litigation brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James against the Trump Organization as well as the Trump family.
Susan Kohlmann, president of the New York City bar, said the disruptions go far beyond one case or one courthouse.
“I do think we need to think about the future, and I think there are people who would consider being a judge, being a juror, being any part of the court system, who are going to think twice in the face of very, very serious threats to them and their families,” she said.
As Trump pursues another White House term, he has grown increasingly aggressive in his pledge to dismantle the “deep state.”
“In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice,’” Trump said in a March speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
While Trump’s rhetoric and disregard for the norms around the justice system alarm Democrats and may dissuade some independents from voting for him, only a small number of Republicans have raised it as a potential issue in a primary.
Asa Hutchinson, a 2024 presidential candidate and one of the few Republican governors to criticize Trump while he held the Arkansas office until earlier this year, argued in a recent CNN interview that voters should take into account Trump’s legal problems and attacks on the judiciary.
“What’s remarkable about the United States of America is our rule of law and our justice system. It’s the envy of the world,” Hutchinson said. “And we can’t have leaders that undermine it and disrespect it.”
It’s not uncommon for people involved in the legal system to vent their frustrations, but few do it as visibly — and to such a wide audience — as Trump.
“It’s a bit unseemly for the judges to respond. And if it’s a response by a judge on a pending case, then it raises issues about their fairness,” said Bruce Green, a law professor at Fordham University and an expert in legal ethics.
“So they try to appear to be above the fray, even though deep down in their hearts they may be, you know, personally stung. They’re not supposed to go on TV and defend themselves.”
It often falls to bar associations such as the New York City bar to respond, calling for respect for the legal system when the judicial system or judges are attacked.
Trump has seen his speech restricted in one case; Merchan agreed to a request from Bragg’s team to bar Trump from posting any evidence in the case on social media.
But he remains free to discuss the case itself on social media, including his opinions on the judge.
“It’s hard to see an upside to making the judge angry at you, right? And nobody likes to be criticized,” Green said. “I suppose he’s playing in more than one court. He’s also playing in the court of public opinion. And that’s in part because he’s running for president, and so he’s raising funds for his campaign. So he may not be thinking strategically, ‘What’s the best way to approach the trial?’
“Maybe he’s counting on the fact that the judge can’t take it out on him. So maybe he’s just thinking, ‘Well, the trial is irrelevant. What I do in the media is not going to impact the trial, but it sure may impact my campaign and my fundraising. So that’s what I’m going to think about.’”