LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Let's dig deeper now into the judicial showdown over the Trump administration's immigration executive order. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us now to talk about that.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Carrie, President Trump used some very strong language on Twitter. And he aimed it at the judge who is rescinding the order. His name is Judge James Robart. What did the president say?
JOHNSON: Well, first, the White House issued a statement calling Judge Robart's order outrageous. Then, it issued another statement a few minutes later removing that word. And then President Trump got into the mix on Twitter. In a tweet, the president blasted the judge as a, quote, "so-called judge."
Then in another tweet, Trump asserted incorrectly that the judge's order would allow anyone, including people with bad intent, to come into the U.S. And then again, Trump, in another tweet, called it a terrible decision.
By the way, Judge Robart was appointed by a Republican president, George W. Bush, and the Senate unanimously confirmed him to the job back in 2004.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So a lot of controversy swirling around this - but this isn't the first time the president has questioned the legitimacy of a judge, is it?
JOHNSON: No. Remember on the campaign trail last year, Trump repeatedly attacked the judge overseeing the fraud case against Trump University. Trump called out Judge Gonzalo Curiel back then for alleged unfairness, called the judge a hater. Trump said the judge couldn't be impartial in that case because he was of Mexican descent. Now, of course, Judge Curiel was born in Indiana. And as for results, Trump eventually settled that fraud case before his inauguration.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, some people might argue Trump is just blowing off steam here. President Obama, if you'll recall, once criticized the Supreme Court during the State of the Union address. So what is different now?
JOHNSON: Well, Obama did take after the court in 2010 for its Citizens United decision that opened up the flow of money into the political system. And in the audience that night, Justice Sam Alito for that State of the Union mouthed on camera - not true. That was a rare exchange. But in other instances, when a Republican judge halted Obama's immigration action, that White House just put out a statement that was kind of down the middle and not at all a personal attack. George W. Bush didn't do personal attacks either.
But Trump, in some ways, has been more personal about a lot of things - calling into question the whole system of checks and balances and the role of an independent federal judiciary. And that's concerned lots of Democrats and even some Republican lawyers who were critical of Trump yesterday. But it's not clear it hurt the president with his supporters.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. But does attacking judges undermine the judicial branch of government?
JOHNSON: It's hard for me to answer. This certainly can't help with public attitudes towards the branch, which decides whether laws are constitutional, among other things.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what does going after a judge accomplish in your view?
JOHNSON: Well, in the case of this immigration executive order, we are near the beginning of what's going to be a very long legal battle, much more to come. But Lulu, judges are people, too. They listen to news coverage and even follow Twitter. They know the White House is picking a fight. And those lower court judges really can't fight back against the president because of judicial ethics rules.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what are those rules? Why can't they fight back?
JOHNSON: Well, judges aren't supposed to say or do anything that could question their impartiality in a case. And were somebody on the bench to defend him or herself against the president's Twitter attacks, that might be cause for a removal from the case, which may, in fact, be what President Trump is after here. Now, the most immediate impact could be making life a lot harder for Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, who's now going to have to answer a lot of questions about these Twitter attacks and whether he's going to be independent of President Trump, who appointed him.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thanks so much for joining us.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. It was a pleasure.
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