Mr. Trump, who refuses to be held to account for anything he has ever said or done, was irked that a federal judge would dare to entertain litigation against him. At a rally in San Diego, Mr. Trump called Judge Curiel “very hostile,” “a very bad judge” and a “hater of Donald Trump,” and said he “should be ashamed of himself. I think it’s a disgrace that he’s doing this.”
He added that Judge Curiel “happens to be, we believe, Mexican.” Not true: Judge Curiel was born and raised in Indiana. But the implication, of course, was that Mr. Trump, who had begun his own candidacy with derogatory comments about Mexicans and had been pushing a border wall with Mexico throughout the campaign, could not get a fair trial from a “Mexican” judge.
Less than two years later, in a case involving the border wall itself, that same judge ruled in Mr. Trump’s favor. He is no longer a “very bad judge,” apparently.
It’s possible that Mr. Trump simply forgot who Judge Curiel is. More likely, he knows full well and doesn’t care. What he cares about is protecting his delicate ego, and repairing any damage to it inflicted by people who don’t show a sufficient degree of respect or self-abasement. This all-consuming self-interest leads him to change his opinion of people and institutions, depending on how he thinks they are treating him at that moment.
Laws and norms, ethics and principles? Meaningless concepts. In Mr. Trump’s world, nothing is sacred and everything is transactional. This is a man who is so much more interested in winning than in governing that he filed for re-election the same day he was inaugurated. It’s the core of who he is, as almost anyone who has had even a glancing dealing with him over the years — especially in real estate, where nothing matters but the sale — will attest. If you help him or say nice things about him, you’re the best. If you get in his way or criticize him, you’re unfair, dishonest, terrible. Failing, even.
Ask “Liddle” Bob Corker, the Tennessee senator who earned Mr. Trump’s outrage by criticizing the Republican tax bill, then seemed to get back on the president’s good side with a few empathetic words. Or Senator John McCain, who is dealing with terminal brain cancer even as Mr. Trump keeps mocking him for his vote last year against repealing Obamacare. Or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was Mr. Trump’s first and most ardent supporter in the Senate, but who has secured a spot in the president’s doghouse after recusing himself from the Russia investigation. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump fired yet another broadside at Mr. Sessions, complaining that his failure to investigate alleged abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is “disgraceful” — in all caps, naturally.
None of this is remotely surprising anymore, but even so, Mr. Trump’s tweet about Judge Curiel’s border-wall decision revealed once again the depths of the president’s own self-interest and his utter lack of principles. When this is the driving force of the commander in chief, and it is aimed at our governmental and social institutions, it is profoundly destructive.
Shortly after the 2016 rally where he disparaged the competence, integrity and ethnicity of Judge Curiel, Mr. Trump was asked why he did not just settle the Trump University case and be done with it. After predicting that he would win outright, he said: “I could settle that case. … I don’t want to settle the case. Because you know what? Because I’m a man of principle.” (In November 2016, days after he won the election, Mr. Trump settled, eventually paying $25 million .)
Fortunately, as this tale reveals, there are in fact still people of principle in public service, and they’re doing important work every day to preserve our institutions and counteract this president’s worst impulses.
Judge Curiel, for one, has continued to do his job, carefully applying the law to the cases that come before him, no matter how obnoxious the litigants might be. In his ruling on Tuesday, the judge acknowledged the “heated political debate” surrounding the border wall, and quoted a passage on the role of courts by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. — who, he slyly noted, is a “fellow Indiana native”: “Courts are vested with the authority to interpret the law; we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments. Those decisions are entrusted to our nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them. It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.”
That is what being a public servant in America sounds like, and it requires a level of selflessness and devotion to democratic ideals that are alien to Mr. Trump.
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