During an interview with CNN on Friday, Donald Trump repeatedly insisted that U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Latino heritage is a legitimate reason why he’s unfit to preside over a Trump University fraud case.
Curiel is an American — he was born in Indiana. His parents are from Mexico.
As CNN’s Jake Tapper points out during the interview, Trump’s position is pretty much the epitome of racism. That, however, didn’t stop former George W. Bush administration Attorney General Alberto Gonzales from trying to defend Trump in a Washington Post op-ed published Saturday.
Gonzales’ argument rests on largely ignoring Trump’s own words and inventing new reasons for Trump’s objection that, even if true, seem irrelevant. He discusses Curiel’s affiliation with a San Diego-based Latino lawyers group and suggests that association might render him unable to render a fair judgment.
“If judges and the trials over which they preside are not perceived as being impartial, the public will quickly lose confidence in the rule of law upon which our nation is based,” Gonzales writes. “For this reason, ethics codes for judges — including the federal code of conduct governing Curiel — require not only that judges actually be impartial, but that they avoid even the ‘appearance of impropriety.’”
But Curiel’s association with a Latino lawyers association is no more improper than is a black judge’s association with the NAACP. Yet the hypothetical NAACP-associated black judge would still be able to preside over a race discrimination case, because barring him or her from doing so would be blatantly racist. Federal courts have consistently rejected the notion that a judge’s ethnicity renders them unable to fairly decide cases.
Gonzales also discusses how the lawyers Curiel appointed to represent plaintiffs in the Trump University case have ties with Hillary Clinton. But as Gonzales himself acknowledges, Curiel made that decision in 2014, long before anyone had an inkling that Trump and Clinton would become presidential adversaries. So that also can’t be plausibly held against Curiel when evaluating whether he’s fit to oversee Trump’s case.
Gonzales’ last line of defense is to just assume Trump isn’t racist and imagine what his motivations would be in that situation.
“If the criticism is solely based on Curiel’s race, that is something voters will take into account in deciding whether he is fit to be president,” Gonzales writes. “If, however, Trump is acting from a sincere motivation to protect his constitutional right to a fair trial, his willingness to exercise his rights as an American citizen and raising the issue even in the face of severe criticism is surely also something for voters to consider.”
Thankfully for voters, we have Trump’s own words to go by. The Tapper interview makes it abundantly clear that Trump’s concerns stem from Curiel’s race and how it affects his own case, not any general concern about systemic injustice. To argue otherwise is to contort words in the service of odiousness — a task Gonzales became all too familiar with during his tenure with the George W. Bush administration.