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Trump ramps up attacks on the justice system when trials and key rulings loom, analysis shows




Former President Donald Trump’s unprecedented attacks on the judicial system are frequently tied to developments in his court cases, an NBC News analysis of his social media platform shows, and at times they’ve outnumbered his posts about his re-election bid.

NBC News analyzed more than 14,000 Trump posts and reposts on Truth Social from April 2022 to Jan. 6, 2024, and found he often uses the platform as a megaphone to attack people and agencies involved in his numerous legal cases. For most of the first half of 2023, a larger share of Trump’s posts were dedicated to his legal issues than his presidential campaign, the review found.

The posts generally portray Trump as the victim of a Democratic scheme designed to derail his presidential bid, with an array of judges and prosecutors working against him at the behest of President Joe Biden, and all part of a partisan “witch hunt,” a term he used about 250 times during that time period.

The attacks on the court system have come as Trump finds himself in dire legal jeopardy. He is facing up to four criminal trials, a multimillion-dollar defamation case and a civil verdict all in the next 12 months. The results of those trials could potentially devastate his business, maim his re-election hopes and cost him his freedom. He’s denied any wrongdoing and has criticized the prosecutors, plaintiffs and almost all of the judges involved, and his attacks have often led to threats and vitriol from his supporters.

The former president in recent months has been lashing out online and at political rallies with increasing frequency against judges and prosecutors in New York and Washington, while also taking potshots at judges in Colorado and even the heavily conservative U.S. Supreme Court

“These vicious attacks on the judiciary and the federal court and even on individual judges are unprecedented in American history by anyone, let alone a president of the United States. They represent a grave threat to the judiciary and the independence of the courts,” said J. Michael Luttig, a retired federal appeals court judge. 

“The purpose and intended effect of the former president’s attacks on the courts is to delegitimize them in the eyes of the American public. His attacks are having their intended effect,” Luttig said.

A spokesman for Trump’s campaign did not return multiple requests for comment.

Attacks on prosecutors

According to the NBC News review, the biggest target of Trump’s Truth Social attacks has been special counsel Jack Smith, whose office is prosecuting the federal election case and a second criminal case in Florida alleging Trump mishandled and tried to hide sensitive national security documents after he left the White House. Trump has posted about Smith — calling him “deranged,” a “nut job” and a “thug” — over 175 times. James, the New York AG, has been singled out close to 100 times.

He’s posted about Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan DA, almost 70 times, and over two dozen times about Fulton County DA Fani Willis, who brought racketeering charges against Trump for allegedly trying to overturn the result of Georgia’s 2020 election. He’s repeatedly referred to the two DAs, who are Black, as “racist.” Both also reported receiving a large number of threats from Trump supporters.

The frequency of Trump’s attacks on judges and prosecutors on Truth Social increases near key dates in the cases. Those posts made up roughly 37% of his social media feed when he was deposed by James’ office, had his mug shot taken in Georgia, and was fighting the partial gag order in New York, the NBC News review found. He posts on average of 20-40 times a day.

Arguing in support of a gag order limiting Trump’s ability to lash out at prosecutors and witnesses in his federal election interference trial, Smith’s lawyer said in November that the special counsel had experienced “multiple threats” and “intimidating communication” as a result of Trump’s attacks. Smith was also the target of an attempted “swatting” on Christmas Day, two law enforcement sources said.

NBC News legal analyst Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney, said Trump’s repeated attacks on judges and prosecutors pose two dangers. “First, Trump‘s false baseless claims of an unfair process could taint the jury pool and result in a hung jury if even one juror falls for his lies,” she said. “Second, and perhaps, even more concerning, his constant drumbeat, targeting prosecutors and judges, could result in political violence against them or their families.” 

Civil fraud case

To date, the main target of Trump’s campaign against the judiciary has been Arthur Engoron, the New York state judge who’s been presiding over the $250 million civil fraud case brought against Trump and his company by state Attorney General Letitia James’ office. An NBC News review of Trump’s social media platform shows he has blasted Engoron by name on the site over 70 times, a number that rose sharply after the trial began in October.

In various Truth Social posts over the past two months, Trump has said that Engoron is a “highly political and disrespectful” “tyrannical and unhinged” “Trump Hating Radical Left Judge, who may be crazy.”

The vitriol was often tied to various developments in the trial, including opening statements and Engoron’s imposition of a gag order against the former president. That order did not bar Trump from badmouthing the judge — it directed that he stop making comments about the judge’s law clerk and other court staff. Trump has taken full advantage of the exception — posting pictures and criticism of the judge and even bashing Engoron’s “Trump hating wife,” whom he falsely accused of having posted memes making fun of him.

He’s also ripped the judge at rallies, in remarks to reporters and even while testifying at the trial, where he called Engoron a “very hostile judge” while he was on the witness stand.

A state courts official said in a November court filing that Trump’s frequent shots had led to a “deluge” of credible threats against the judge, his family and his staff. Trump’s attorneys countered in a separate court filing arguing against the gag order that their client was not to blame for the actions of “third parties.”

Trump’s bashing of Engoron ramped up in recent days as the closing arguments in the case drew nearer, including one Monday in which he suggested that the judge was a puppet of the AG — who’s now seeking a $370 million judgment against Trump.

Hours before the closing arguments began on Thursday, police responded to a bomb threat at Engoron’s Long Island home.

Defamation case

Trump has also increased the frequency of his attacks on writer E. Jean Carroll, whose civil damages trial in her defamation case against him is scheduled to begin in federal court in New York on Jan. 16. Trump posted a barrage of over 50 posts involving Carroll on Jan. 4, including several that were old reposts from her own social media. In one, she described herself as a “massive” fan of Trump’s TV show “The Apprentice.”

About 20 of the posts referred to the judge presiding over the case as “another Highly Partisan Clinton-Appointed Friend.”

Trump previously claimed the judge, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, was biased. After a jury found Trump liable in a separate case last year for sexually abusing Carroll in a New York City department store in the 1990s and hit him with a $5 million verdict, Trump complained the judge “hated President Donald J. Trump more than is humanly possible.” “He is a terrible person,” Trump wrote.

Criminal cases

Other “haters,” according to the former president, are U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan and New York state Judge Juan Merchan. Chutkan is presiding over the federal election interference case against Trump in Washington, D.C., while Merchan is presiding over the Manhattan district attorney’s falsifying business records case against him.

Chutkan appeared to be the target of a “swatting” attack over the weekend as police said they responded to false reports of a shooting at a house that a witness identified as hers. The incident occurred less than two days before an appeals court was set to hear arguments over a ruling of hers that went against Trump.

Merchan and his family also received multiple threats after Trump bashed them as “Trump haters,” two sources familiar with the matter said.

Trump has mentioned Chutkan by name 11 times on Truth Social and Merchan by name only once but has complained about them being partisan and biased in numerous other posts that did not name them. The post ripping Merchan’s family came hours before Trump was arraigned in the Manhattan case in April of last year.

One judge Trump has not attacked is U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon, the Trump judicial nominee who’s overseeing the criminal case alleging he mishandled national secrets and tried to conceal his wrongdoing. However, last July, after the judge set an earlier-than-expected trial date of this May, Trump ramped up his attacks on Smith, who’s prosecuting the case. Almost 40% of Trump’s posts in that time period were attacks on Smith and the court system, the NBC review showed.

Colorado ballot ruling

Trump is also facing a legal issue that could derail his presidential bid — a Colorado Supreme Court ruling that he should be barred from the ballot there under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Trump said on Truth Social that the ruling “is being ridiculed and mocked all over the World.”

The ruling led to a flood of threats against the judges that the FBI is now investigating.

That decision is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, including three justices nominated by Trump. The high court has repeatedly ruled against Trump in cases involving his criminal probes and his bogus stolen election claims, and Trump has expressed concern it could do so again in order not to appear partisan.

“All I want is fair. I fought really hard to get three very, very good people and they’re great people, very smart people. And I just hope that they’re going to be fair because you know, the other side plays the ref,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Sioux City, Iowa, over the weekend.

Luttig said Trump’s “concerns” are just another part of the strategy designed to undercut the court. “In this instance, he is speaking directly to the conservative justices on the court,” Luttig said.

Attack playbook

Trump’s attacks on judges who have issued rulings against his interests have been a part of his playbook since the 2016 presidential campaign. That’s when he said U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel couldn’t be impartial in a case against his failed Trump University because he was “Mexican” and one of Trump’s campaign promises was to build a wall along the Mexican border. Further, the judge, who is of Mexican descent and was born in Indiana, was a “Trump hater,” Trump contended.

That’s a label that’s similar to the ones he has used to attack Engoron, Chutkan, Merchan, Kaplan, James, Willis and Smith, the review found.

In addition to trying to foment distrust in the court system, the avalanche of attacks “is intended to intimidate the judges and the courts — federal and state — who will preside over his cases,” Luttig said.

Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor and current NBC News legal analyst, said the attacks are “a political strategy, not a legal strategy” and part of a “transparent” pattern of Trump trying to delegitimize any person or institution seeking to hold him to account.

Kirschner said he’s never seen anything like what “Trump is allowed to get away with by our institutions — that’s the most disappointing part.”

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