My good friend Jeff Lord has in recent days been valiantly trying to justify Donald Trump’s verbal assault — somewhat walked back on Tuesday after pressure from RNC Chairman Reince Priebus — on Gonzalo Curiel, the judge in the Trump University fraud case.
One need not have an opinion on the merits of the case or even on the integrity of Curiel in order to recognize Trump’s actions as courting political disaster while simultaneously earning him the (further?) enmity of an appointed-for-life federal judge.
One need not believe, as Ben Stein suggests, that criticizing Trump’s behavior implies a naïve belief in the inherent fairness of each and every member of the judiciary.
The issue is not the lawsuit and it’s not the judge.
It’s the mind-numbing narcissism of a man who aspires to lead the United States of America yet spends every opportunity for days on end calling a man born in Indiana a “Mexican” and implying, no matter how much he or his surrogates cry foul, that the judge’s “Mexican heritage” makes him incapable of intellectual impartiality. And then claiming today that his statements were “misconstrued.” Really, how stupid does Donald think we are?
Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether Trump is, as both Lord and Stein argue, right about the merits of his claims of being treated unfairly by the judge, and consider a cost/benefit analysis of Trump’s approach.
First, the lawsuit: I suppose it is theoretically possible that the sheer intensity of the public focus and politicization of the case could cause Judge Curiel to recuse himself, in which case Donald Trump may consider himself to have won a modest victory.
More likely, Trump will have earned at least a subconscious desire by the judge to justify the existence of the Trump University lawsuit at every turn, which means ensuring that information prejudicial to Mr. Trump becomes public record — such as by the judge’s recent unsealing of documents which Trump’s attorneys had argued should remain undisclosed to the public.
To be clear, I am not saying that the judge unsealed the documents to hurt Mr. Trump but rather because — since he is prevented by ethics rules from responding directly, outside of commentary within his written or verbal rulings, to Trump’s charges that he is behaving unfairly — he felt the need to make sure the public understands the information on which he decided that a case should go forward despite Trump’s assertion that it should have been dismissed on summary judgment.
Again, none of this should be taken as my claiming that this judge is impartial. It troubles me greatly that he is a member of more than one group which focuses on Latino cultural identity (though not the National Council of La Raza) rather than simply on the rule of law and the Constitution. He was appointed by President Obama and is known to be a supporter of Hillary Clinton’s. And as Jeff has pointed out, the judge assigned the case to a rabidly pro-Hillary law firm.
The problem with Trump’s attack on Curiel is not his questioning the judge’s integrity, though I wonder if that can be a winning tactic against a federal judge, but rather tying that question to his heritage — even understanding Trump’s underlying argument that Curiel’s disdain for the GOP presumptive nominee may come from disapproving of Trump’s policy suggestions regarding a border wall between the United States and Mexico.
Callers and e-mailers to my radio show who identify as patriotic Americans (and as Republicans) having Mexican heritage have mostly been strongly pushed away from supporting Mr. Trump because of the last few days of what many unbiased observers, not to mention a few biased ones, consider anti-Mexican rhetoric. One example: “His comments show me he doesn’t differentiate between who is here undocumented and who is an American. This concerns me. He won’t get my vote now.” Moderate Republican non-Hispanic women have shared the same reaction. How many Republican voters can Trump lose and still have a chance of winning in November? Precious few, and far too few to lose on such an inane quest as this.
Prominent Republicans, many of whom Trump supporters will no doubt assail as “establishment,” are criticizing and fleeing the toxic Trump environment to whatever degree they can. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, unable to fully run away from The Donald, are saying that they disapprove of, and don’t understand the reasoning behind, his comments. Somehow, Trumpettes are holding that against McConnell and Ryan even though these men, despite whatever flaws one may criticize them for, have a responsibility (which will be all the more important when Hillary Clinton is, much to my horror, elected president of the United States) to maintain Republican majorities in both houses of Congress if at all possible.
So the question is this: Even in the unlikely event that Trump causes Curiel to remove himself from the case, is that minor and very personal victory worth the tremendous harm Trump is causing for his own electoral chances and for Republicans across the country who now see the man at the top of the ticket appearing to prove correct every harmful racist stereotype with which Democrats portray the GOP?
Putting it another way, is it anything short of political insanity for the Republican candidate for the presidency to turn the campaign into a circus about an ultimately meaningless civil suit?
The answer, despite the best efforts of my friend Jeff Lord, is “absolutely not.”
It is not that Donald Trump’s beliefs about Gonzalo Curiel’s integrity reflect on Trump’s suitability to be the leader of the free world. Rather, what takes Mr. Trump one step closer to being disqualified in the mind of this columnist — who desperately wants never to have to write about “President Hillary Clinton” — is the degree of narcissism that it must require for a candidate to be willing to submarine not just his own electability but that of his entire party in order to criticize a man who, even against Donald Trump, holds all the cards in a game which is of precisely zero significance to the nation.
Sorry, Jeff and Ben, but Donald Trump is anything but right.
In a short speech on Tuesday night, perhaps wanting to take some pressure off Jeff Lord’s herculean efforts to defend the indefensible, Mr. Trump gave Republicans a brief respite from the circular firing squad. In less than 20 minutes, Trump laid out a credible explanation for his “America First” vision. He spoke about reducing the burden of taxes and regulation on the American economy. He asked Bernie Sanders supporters to consider supporting him because of their shared disdain for free trade deals (though Bernie is simply against free trade whereas Trump’s emphasis is on deals that are better for the country).
And most importantly he began what will inevitably be five months of assault on the shakedown racket that is the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton family, saying that Hillary Clinton turned the State Department into “her private hedge fund” and announcing a major speech, probably next Monday, in which he will lay out a full case against the Clinton corruption machine.
Mercifully, he did all of this without a single mention of Judge Curiel. And interestingly, this was only the third speech of Trump’s presidential campaign which he gave from a teleprompter. Sighs of relief were heard from the halls of Congress to living rooms across the nation, and especially from one particular American Spectator columnist sitting on a CNN set in Washington, D.C.