Wall Street Journal (Opinion)
By Gerald Seib
June 6, 2016
Donald Trump has ignited controversies large and small in his run for the presidency, and he’s managed to cruise past most of them not only alive but also enhanced in many cases.
Yet the one in which he is embroiled now, over his repeated attacks on an American judge of Mexican descent who is hearing a case against the now-defunct Trump University, isn’t going away so easily. It has lingered and actually seemed to grow over the weekend. The question is: Why this one?
Most significantly, it has caused fellow Republicans who recently rallied to Mr. Trump’s side to speak out, in some cases forcefully. The two leading Republicans in Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is mentioned regularly as a potential Trump running mate, all have been openly critical. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a former GOP presidential primary foe, spoke up on Monday as well.
To be sure, it’s not at all clear that this ruckus will do any more lasting damage than have earlier uproars, which often have only improved Mr. Trump’s standing with his backers. “I guess based on history—an odd history—I’m not prepared yet to say how much this will hurt him,” said Ari Fleischer, a former George W. Bush aide who backs Mr. Trump but also is critical of him over this episode. “Everything obvious that you would say would hurt him before hasn’t.”
Yet this controversy feels a bit different. Republican leaders, including those supporting Mr. Trump, suggest four specific reasons that is so.
First, the attacks on the federal judge, Gonzalo Curiel, moved from Mr. Trump’s tried-and-true line of attack on the nation’s immigration practices to the question of ethnicity. That is different territory.
“First of all, this judge was born in Indiana,” Mr. Gingrich said on Fox News. “He is an American, period. When you come to America, you get to become an American. And Trump who has grandparents who came to the U.S. should understand this as much as anybody.”
Second, the attack represented an attempt to intimidate a figure in one branch of the government, the judiciary, just as Mr. Trump secured his claim to the nomination to run another branch of the government, the executive branch. That has raised questions of how he would treat the constitutionally enshrined separation of powers.
“If justice is blind so should all Americans be who are concerned about justice,” said Mr. Fleischer. “This unwinds all that.” He added that “there isn’t a lot that makes the judiciary powerful except our acceptance of it.”
Third, this controversy is about Mr. Trump’s personal position, in a legal matter of his own, rather than the welfare of Americans more broadly.
That makes this controversy “fundamentally different,” said Eric Cantor, the former Republican leader in the House. “This is Trump talking his book. He’s attempting to influence the outcome of a lawsuit he is defending by using his political muscle. It’s all about Trump. Where is the benefit conferred upon the electorate?”
By contrast, Mr. Trump’s attacks on holes in the nation’s immigration system and flaws in its trade agreements have been equally blunt, but they are connected to the broad economic damage many Americans feel they have incurred from illegal workers or unfair competition from foreign countries. Even his controversial proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country was directly related to broad fears about the danger of terrorist infiltration. This controversy has no equally obvious broad significance.
And fourth, the timing of this episode has made Republicans cringe. It arose just as many of them had swallowed their misgivings and begun lining up behind Mr. Trump—and as the candidate himself, as presumptive Republican nominee rather than merely presidential contender, was being seen in a different light by a broader national audience.
Many Republicans thought there was at least an implicit understanding embedded in their decisions to swing behind Mr. Trump: They would move past their past concerns about his candidacy, and in return he would begin to change his style, becoming less incendiary and—to use the term Mr. Trump himself deploys frequently—more presidential.
Moreover, Republican pollster David Winston notes that the controversy overshadowed bad data on job creation that could have been the focus of discussion over the weekend, to Democrats’ detriment: “The story at the end of the week was the poor jobs report, the worst monthly report since 2010, and instead the electorate is hearing about Trump’s view of a judge who is handling a case he is involved in.”
This controversy is being prolonged by another factor: Mr. Trump’s decision not to walk away from the dustup, as he has at times in the past, but rather to double down on it, thereby bestowing a bit of fame on the previously obscure Judge Curiel.
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