Trump directs rage at DC judge handling his Jan. 6 case

From the attorneys prosecuting his cases to his allies-turned-foes, few who have gone up against former President Trump have been spared his wrath.

Now, in the days after his indictment over efforts to subvert the 2020 election results, Trump is directing his anger at a new target: U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing that case.  

“There is no way I can get a fair trial with the judge ‘assigned’ to the ridiculous freedom of speech/fair elections case,” Trump wrote in all caps in a Truth Social post Sunday. “Everybody knows this, and so does she!” 

Chutkan was randomly assigned to Trump’s case after he was indicted last week on four charges. An Obama appointee, Chutkan has given out tough sentences to Jan. 6 defendants, either matching or exceeding the sentences for which prosecutors asked.  

She also previously denied a Trump lawsuit seeking to block the National Archives from turning over documents to the House Jan. 6 committee, writing that “Presidents are not kings, and Plaintiff is not President.” 

Her role in Trump’s Washington, D.C., case has placed her squarely in the former president’s line of fire. Trump has said on Truth Social that his counsel plans to move to recuse Chutkan from the case, calling her “the Judge of [special counsel Jack Smith’s] ‘dreams.’” 

While it’s rare for a criminal defendant to “go out of their way” to antagonize a judge, Trump’s recent social media posts will likely not have meaningful bearing on the case, according to Bruce Green, director of the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham University. 

“I don’t think the judge will respond to his public statements, and I don’t think she should,” Green said. “If he wants to make a recusal motion and there’s a nonfrivolous recusal motion to be made … he’s entitled to make the motion if he wants to make it.” 

“He has a First Amendment right, at the moment, to post things on social media,” he added. 

Taking his legal frustrations out on social media is not a new tactic for Trump, who has questioned the motives of judges or legitimacy of court rulings throughout his presidency and post-presidency. 

Trump has taken aim at the judge overseeing the civil case involving the writer E. Jean Carroll, deriding him as a “Clinton-appointed judge.” He also previously posted multiple times about Judge Juan Merchan, who is handling the former president’s hush money case in Manhattan, referring to him as a “Trump Hating Judge” and claiming Merchan “HATES ME.” 

Previously, Trump lambasted the judge who oversaw the case of his 2016 campaign Chairman Paul Manafort, derided some jurists who ruled against him as “Obama judges” and suggested a judge’s Mexican heritage meant he was potentially biased against him. 

The tactic appears to be one motivated by Trump’s own issues with judges whom he perceives as biased, largely because of who appointed them, and it has typically been out of step with his own legal team. 

David Sklansky, a Stanford Law professor and co-director of the university’s Criminal Justice Center, said Chutkan is an “experienced judge” unlikely to be fazed by Trump’s comments. Suggestions she should be disqualified or made to recuse are “ridiculous,” he said. 

“There’s absolutely no basis for that,” Sklansky said. “I will be interested to see whether any of Trump’s lawyers are willing to make that suggestion; it’s such a crazy suggestion from a legal standpoint.” 

John Lauro, one of the attorneys representing Trump in the D.C. case, said on a podcast with Florida defense attorney David Markus that he is still assessing the potential for a motion to seek the judge’s recusal. 

“I need to take a hard look at this issue from a legal perspective and want to make sure it is correctly and exhaustively analyzed. So, we’ve made no final decision on that issue. It has to be really looked at with a fine-toothed comb. It raises a lot of issues,” Lauro said. 

Lauro added that Trump’s comments about Chutkan came from a “layman’s” political perspective, referring to the fact that Chutkan was appointed to the bench by a Democratic president. Joe Tacopina, an attorney representing Trump in the New York hush money case, made similar remarks when Trump attacked Merchan’s credibility.  

But sometimes Trump’s online attacks have escalated to real-life violence. Merchan and his family received death threats after Trump criticized him, and a bomb threat interrupted the start of proceedings in a $250 million civil litigation brought by New York’s attorney general against the Trump Organization and Trump family, as The Hill previously reported. 

“To the extent [Trump’s comments] pose the risk of personal harm to the judge and others, they need to be dealt with forcefully,” said Daniel Richman, a professor at Columbia University Law School. 

Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said Trump’s social media attacks follow the same playbook as those ahead of the Capitol attack, where his posts were used as a motivating force for violence. 

“We just spent the last two-plus years talking about the role of Trump as a social media amplifier, as a radicalizing figure, and how the playbook that we saw going into Jan. 6 had moved beyond just one individual,” Lewis said. “It’s this unique spot that Trump continues to sit in.” 

Though an event like Jan. 6 is unlikely to happen again as a result, “lone actors” — such as the man who attempted to breach an Ohio FBI field office or the man who allegedly attacked former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) husband — pose a real threat, Lewis added.  

“Lone actors who see posts from politicians and prominent figures in this right-wing space as a call to arms are, to some extent, looking for an excuse to commit political violence against their enemies and are happy to seize upon these posts as their chance to do something,” he said.  

A defendant provoking violence could be ordered remanded by a judge ahead of trial, Green said. 

“If a defendant is obstructing justice, destroying evidence, intimidating witnesses, provoking violence against witnesses — that defendant can land in jail prior to the trial,” he said. 

Keeping Trump in check without infringing on his right to free speech — all while the 2024 presidential election rages on — will be a “difficult issue” for Chutkan to navigate, Sklansky said. 

“It’s going to be a work in progress,” Sklansky said. “The trial judge needs to be concerned with preserving the fairness of the potential jury venire and ensuring that Trump and the prosecutors both can receive a fair hearing at trial. On the other hand, Trump does have First Amendment rights and he is running for president.” 

“The judge is not going to want to step on that,” he said. “She’s going to need to find a middle ground.” 

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