Amid a post-impeachment effort to put himself and his associates beyond the reach of law, President Donald Trump demanded on Monday that liberal Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg recuse themselves from cases involving him. The president tweeted the comments in response to a Fox News segment on the justices he was watching before beginning a day of ceremonial appearances and state meetings in India.
“‘Sotomayor accuses GOP appointed Justices of being biased in favor of Trump,’” he tweeted, quoting a chyron from Laura Ingraham’s Fox program. “This is a terrible thing to say. Trying to ‘shame’ some into voting her way? She never criticized Justice Ginsberg when she called me a ‘faker’. Both should recuse themselves on all Trump, or Trump related, matters!”
Trump reiterated his dictate that the justices recuse themselves a few hours later during a joint press conference with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, thus escalating Fox live-tweeting to public controversy during an official state visit.
Trump was mischaracterizing a sharply worded dissent Sotomayor issued last week, in which she accused her court of “putting a thumb on the scale in favor of” the Trump administration by repeatedly granting its requests for emergency stays on lower court judgements against it pending appeals. His comments about Ginsburg reference remarks she made about him as a presidential candidate in July 2016; after he called on her to resign, she admitted her statements had been “ill advised.”
Trump apparently learned about Sotomayor’s opinion, and had his memory jogged about Ginsburg’s comments, while watching Ingraham’s Monday program. Ingraham detailed Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion, arguing that the justice was “attacking, in part, her conservative colleagues.” After discussing the controversy with Carrie Severino, head of the right-wing dark money group Judicial Crisis Network, Ingraham pivoted to Ginsburg, claiming that “Sotomayor's tirade reminds me of the fact that I don't recall her being upset with the politics of one of her colleagues” and referencing Ginsburg’s “faker” remark.
This might have simply been another obvious Fox attack on the court’s liberal justices on behalf of the Trump administration. But Trump himself was watching Fox, as he often does. And he responded by using the segment as the impetus to try to stymie the possibility of the Supreme Court intervening in opposition to his administration.
Trump’s demand for Sotomayor and Ginsburg to recuse themselves from “all Trump, or Trump related, matters” should be seen as of apiece with his recent Fox-fueled efforts to corrupt the Justice Department. He and his hand-picked attorney general, William Barr, are using the DOJ to shield the president and his allies and to attack his political foes. The Supreme Court could act as a bulwark against the worst of the Trump administration’s assaults on the rule of law -- and so Trump is trying to take it off the board.
There’s virtually no chance Sotomayor and Ginsburg would recuse themselves. There is no mechanism to force justices to recuse themselves from cases, and they typically do so voluntarily only when they were involved with the case before it reached the court, when they have a financial stake with one of the parties, or when they have a familial tie to the case. Arch-conservative justice Clarence Thomas, for example, has not recused himself from Trump-related cases even though his wife, Ginny Thomas, is a conservative activist advising the president on personnel issues.
But by raising questions about whether the liberal justices should recuse themselves, Trump is laying the groundwork to respond to any future Supreme Court action against himself or his administration in which they play a role. He is setting himself up to be able to claim that the court’s orders are illegitimate -- and perhaps to refuse to follow them. All because he saw a Fox segment that primed him to carry out his worst instincts.