Seven years ago, facing a massive civil fraud lawsuit against his eponymous for-profit university, then-candidate Donald Trump shocked and offended legal observers by launching into an extended series of attacks on the federal judge presiding over the suit, claiming U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel's "Mexican heritage" presented "an absolute conflict" in the Indiana-born jurist's ability to fairly handle the case.
Last week the now-ex-president returned to that same rhetorical stomping ground with a blistering screed against acting New York Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan, the man tapped to preside over Trump's forthcoming criminal trial for alleged hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 election. "The Judge 'assigned' to my Witch Hunt Case, a 'Case' that has NEVER BEEN CHARGED BEFORE, HATES ME," Trump posted on his Truth Social account. "His name is Juan Manuel Marchan, was hand picked by Bragg & the Prosecutors, & is the same person who 'railroaded' my 75 year old former CFO, Allen Weisselberg, to take a 'plea' deal (Plead GUILTY, even if you are not, 90 DAYS, fight us in Court, 10 years (life!) in jail."
Trump continued the attack a day later, calling Merchan a "Trump Hating Judge, hand selected by the Soros backed D.A." in another bombastic declaration of, if not his innocence, then at least his mistreatment.
Given that this is the first time that Trump — or any former president — has faced criminal charges, the fact that he has spent so much time and energy attacking the man in whose hands his fate lies raises the question: What exactly does Trump think he's accomplishing here?
A pattern of attacks
Merchan is the latest in a long line of judiciary figures who have found themselves at the receiving end of the former president's fury. While most of Trump's attacks have lacked the racist and anti-Semitic overtones of those leveled against Merchan and Curiel, the former president has regularly attacked judges presiding over cases he has been directly or indirectly involved in.
"Presidents have disagreed with court rulings all the time," Indiana University law professor Charles Geyh told The Washington Post in 2017, after the Trump administration officially targeted the "egregious overreach by a single, unelected district judge" who had blocked one of Trump's executive orders.
"What's unusual is [Trump is] essentially challenging the legitimacy of the court's role. And he's doing that without any reference to applicable law," Geyh continued. "That they are blocking his order is all the evidence he needs that they are exceeding their authority."
Over the course of his presidency, Trump had attacked "the opinion of this so-called judge" who blocked enforcement of his travel ban, attacked another judge's ruling on his travel ban as "terrible," and lashed out at a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel as "disgraceful," saying that "a bad high school student" would have an easier time ruling in his favor.
Will it work?
It's entirely up in the air whether Trump's pattern of attacking judges will, in this historically unprecedented situation, play a role in his ultimate fate. Already his attorney, Joe Tacopina, has begun walking back his client's remarks, "Do I think the judge is biased? Of course not," he told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos. "How could I subscribe to that when I've had no interactions with the judge that would lead me to believe he's biased?"
Tacopina also made clear that he saw Trump's remarks against Merchan as existing outside the realm of legal commentary, saying, "I'm his attorney, but I'm myself. I'm not his PR person. I'm not a spokesperson."
In a separate interview with CNN, Tacopina reiterated his admiration for Merchan. "I have no issue with this judge whatsoever," he said. "He has a very good reputation."
While Merchan himself has been silent in the face of Trump's attacks, they have not gone unnoticed by others in the legal community. In an order to keep the jury anonymous for Trump's upcoming sexual assault and defamation trial against author E. Jean Carroll, Manhattan U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan specifically cited the former president's history of attacking "courts, judges, various law enforcement officials and other public officials, and even individual jurors in other matters," noting that Trump's calls to "protest" and "take back our country" ahead of his criminal indictment "has been perceived by some as incitement to violence."
Those fears have long loomed large when it comes to Trump's rhetoric around judges. In a 2017 interview with PBS, former U.S. Marshal and National Judicial College security professor John Muffler claimed "there's a fear among the judiciary with what's being said."
"People on the edge can easily be pushed over the edge once the rhetoric gets going," he added.
As former Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance told NBC's Meet The Press, Trump's rhetoric could place him in further legal jeopardy as his criminal case proceeds through the court system.
"I would be mindful of not committing some other criminal offense, like obstruction of governmental administration," Vance explained. "And I think that could take what perhaps we think is not the strongest case, when you add a count like that, put it in front of a jury, it can change the jury's mind about the severity of the case that they're looking at."
"If I were Mr. Trump's lawyer, I would tell him to knock it off, because it's not going to help him with the judge, and if it is charged, it's not going to help him with the jury," he added in an interview with MSNBC.
Whether Trump's bellicose bluster makes an appreciable difference in Merchan's courtroom, however, will ultimately remain to be seen.