Commentary: Will Trump's War On A Federal Judge Bring Down His Campaign?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

At a rally last week, Donald Trump sneered that the judge in two of the three fraud cases against him and Trump University “happens to be, we believe, Mexican.”

Actually,  he’s an American, born to Mexican parents and raised in Indiana, where he graduated from Indiana University Law School. Trump argues that federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel is biased because Trump intends to build a wall along the border to prevent illegal immigration. “I’m building the wall, I’m building the wall,” Mr. Trump said. “I have a Mexican judge. He’s of Mexican heritage. He should have recused himself, not only for that, for other things.”

Trump said Curiel belongs to La Raza, a group that has been protesting Trump rallies. Wrong. In fact, he is a member of the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association, a professional organization for Latino lawyers and judges which conducts no political or partisan activities at all.

Trump’s supporters, including former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate for Trump, criticized him for his verbal assaults on the judge. Gingrich managed to call Trump’s attacks “the biggest mistake of the campaign.” Is it still a mistake when you say it again and again?

Jake Tapper tried on his Sunday CNN program to draw out Trump for using ethnic heritage to disqualify a federal judge. He asked him 23 times why Trump believed Judge Curiel was prejudiced against him. Trump’s answer 23 times: “I’m building a wall, I’m building a wall.” Trump, as he did when he refused to denounce KKK leader David Duke, claimed his ear piece wasn’t working. Twenty-three times, Donald? C’mon.

Could this be it, the moment when Trump finally goes one step over the line and destroys his candidacy? U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who just endorsed Trump and will chair the Republican National Convention in mid-July, called Trump’s remarks the “textbook definition of a racist comment,” before he quickly reiterated his support for Trump as president. Apparently in Ryan’s textbook, racism is not a disqualification for someone to be the party’s presidential nominee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky writes in a new memoir that he voted for Lyndon Johnson over former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater because of Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act. But McConnell refused three times Sunday to say whether Trump's attacks on a Latino judge were racist. He did say that he “couldn’t disagree more” with the attacks. His reasoning is pragmatic not moral: He recalled how Goldwater’s 1964 campaign severely damaged the GOP for decades with African Americans.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who goes Jekyll and Hyde on Trump, called the attacks on Judge Curiel “playing the race card” and is “very un-American.” Graham ducked away from CNN cameras and unboldly declared, “If he continues this line of attack then I think people really need to reconsider the future of the party,” whatever that means. Graham showed a bit more spine when he told The New York Times, "This is the most un-American thing from a politician since Joe McCarthy."

Republican senators facing re-election in blue states have decided to grow some spine. Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk threw it into reverse and announced he was withdrawing his support for Trump, a fact far less surprising when you realize he’s in trouble for re-election.

In New Hampshire, another nervous incumbent senator, Kelly Ayotte, called on Trump to retract his comments but stopped short of rejecting his candidacy. That could change in light of a recent WBUR-MassINC poll showing that Ayotte clings to a 2 point lead over Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse has long refused to support Trump and has openly flirted with supporting a third-party candidate.

Add to the “not-quite ready-to-bail” pile Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who said, “His statement that Judge Curiel could not rule fairly because of his Mexican heritage does not represent our American values.” Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, like Collins, isn’t up this year but he told NPR he hoped Trump would withdraw his attacks, but since he hasn’t, Flake will not endorse him.

Judge Curiel is prevented by judicial (and his own) ethics from commenting about Trump's comments. Gregory Vega, a former federal prosecutor who has known Curiel since the ninth grade, noted “the irony of Trump’s criticizing someone who had risked his life as a prosecutor to stem the flow of drugs from Mexico into the U.S., an issue supposedly dear to Trump. A lot of us have never been tested like that.”

Is it possible that a federal judge, simply by doing his job, will be the force that finally brings down the Trump candidacy?

Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst and a regular contributor to WBUR Politicker. He tweets @payneco.

Headshot of Dan Payne

Dan Payne Democratic Political Analyst
Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst for WBUR.



More from WBUR

Listen Live