How better to wrap up the calendar year than by examining the President’s take on his relationship with the Supreme Court – especially since the Court was one of President Trump’s favorite topics of discussion this past year. The context of these references ranged from from specificity to generalities and from praise to criticism. Many of the tropes are likely familiar. There was commentary on the Supreme Court vacancy after Justice Kennedy retired, more about Justice Kavanaugh during the confirmation process, and a smattering of comments on a wider spectrum of issues ranging from the remaining justices to specific cases. FactBa.se is a helpful resource that compiles President Trump’s comments by cataloging speech transcripts as well as tweets and making them publicly searchable.
The various Supreme Court related events where Trump had a vested interest often coincided temporally with his comments. Overall and after eliminating duplicate observations, President Trump had some 280 public comments where he mentioned the Supreme Court between 12/22/2017 and 12/22/2018. The frequency of these references by date are displayed below.
The bulk of President Trumps comments came between Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation with the most precipitous rising band coinciding with the confirmation hearings.
While Trump parlayed a bevy of comments relating to the Court, many had striking similarities. A wordcloud with text from all of these references helps probe the content.
The size of the words relates to the frequency with which they appear in the data. The size of “Brett” indicates that Trump frequently referenced Brett Kavanaugh. Other words like “newest” and “Yale” also relate to Kavanaugh as he is the newest justice and a graduate of Yale Law School. Some of the words like “horrible” may require supporting prose to understand (Trump often described the Democrats treatment of Kavanaugh during the confirmation hearings as “horrible.”) Since both of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees were men, the term “man” came up quite frequently and is prominent in the wordcloud as well.
The actual term frequencies provide a quantified measure of the data in the wordcloud (the terms “Supreme” and “Court” were removed from these frequency measures). The next figure has the most frequent individual words with common stop words like “and,” “or,” and “the” removed from the set.
Many of these terms came during discussions of the Kavanaugh nomination and often took place during commentary on the confirmation hearings. Multiple word phrases provide greater context for Trump’s words surrounding the Supreme Court. The most used two-word phrases or bigrams are shown below.
In a similar vein, many of the bigrams relate to Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. The use of phrases like “great intellect” helps link several of Trump’s overarching themes. Take, for example this series of comments about Kavanaugh from the confirmation process:
- “And to protect your rights and freedoms, we overcame the Democrats’ smear campaign and confirmed the newest member of the United States Supreme Court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh. And speaking of Justice Kavanaugh, great man, great intellect, a great scholar….” [Speech: Donald Trump Holds a Political Rally in Chattanooga, TN – November 4, 2018]
- “They thought 10 years ago, long before I thought I’d be doing this, I was very happy in Manhattan having a lot of fun building buildings. I was very happy. But long before, I used to hear the name Brett Kavanaugh as being this great intellect, Washington, he will be on the Supreme Court someday” [Speech: Donald Trump Holds a Political Rally in Chattanooga, TN – November 4, 2018]
- “Boy, oh, did they treat him horribly. Did they treat him badly. A great scholar, a great intellect, a great person, great family. Did they treat him badly or what? That was hard to believe. This will be the election of the caravans, the Kavanaughs, law and order, tax cuts, and you know what else?” [Speech: Donald Trump Holds a Political Rally in Murphysboro, Illinois – October 27, 2018]
- “…You’re the best student, number one in his class all over the place. You’re the best — a great intellect, a great scholar, your family, your beautiful wife, your beautiful daughters, everyone is so perfect. This is going to go so easy, so fast. [Laughter] And then I saw the way they made him suffer. But he got through it with style and got through it with grace, and now he’s going to be on the United States Supreme Court for a long period of time….” [Speech: Donald Trump Holds a Political Rally in Mosinee, Wisconsin – October 24, 2018]
- “…And I will tell you, when I decided on Brett — and we have tremendous talent in our legal system. But I decided on Brett. I said, “He’s flawless. He’s a flawless person.” The best student. The best scholar. The great intellect. Incredible record over many years. And yet, he’s a young man….” [Speech: Donald Trump Addresses the International Association of Police Chiefs – October 8, 2018]
- “Wow, such enthusiasm and energy for Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Look at the energy, look at the p Something very big is happening. He is a fine man and great intellect. The country is with him all the way!” [Twitter, Oct 3 ’18 @ 9:23 pm EDT]
This list goes on and the content of the top three-word phrases does not differ much from that of the two-word phrases (notice that “great intellect” comes up in the three-word phrases as well).
Another way to split Trump’s comments on the Supreme Court is not only by the actual words but by the focal point or intention of his comments. When these are laid out, several patterns become clear.
Trump specifically talked about the Travel Ban case, Trump v. Hawaii, more than any of the other cases that he specifically referenced.
He talked about Gorsuch more than other sitting justices prior to Kavanaugh joining the Court, and talked about Kavanaugh more than any of the other justices over the course of the year. A bulk of the Kavanaugh comments came up during discussions of the sexual allegations against Kavanaugh that arose during the confirmation process. Trump also mentioned the importance of the Court to his election agenda several times and discredited the Democrats for overlooking the importance of gaining a foothold into this institution.
The set of references were also organized by their purposes and settings. These purposes and setting predominately clustered into limited types.
The purpose of Trump’s comments surrounding the Supreme Court was often rallying his political base. An example of this was Trump’s recent comments on the Judge O’Connor’s decision to rule the Affordable Care Act’s Individual Mandate provision unconstitutional, “…Well, it was a big ruling. It’s a great ruling for our country. We’ll be able to get great healthcare. We’ll sit down with the Democrats if the Supreme Court upholds. We’ll be sitting down with the Democrats and we’ll get great healthcare for our people. Let’s say repeal and replace, handled a little bit differently…” [Press Gaggle: Donald Trump Makes an Unscheduled Visit to Arlington National Cemetery – December 15, 2018]
Tactics often looked similar but often had a forward-looking focus. Take this comment Trump made about the travel ban: “See the way people love it. It’s so important. It’s where it’s at. It’s really where it’s at. To keep America safe from terrorism, we have put in place the travel ban. Remember that? Recently upheld by the United States Supreme Court. Remember that? You’ll never get it approved, Mr. President. Let’s give it a shot.” [Speech: Donald Trump Holds a Political Rally in Houston, Texas – October 22, 2018]
Self-congratulatory comments had a bit of a different tenor where Trump assessed his accomplishments over the year. One such statements was “I say, and I say it often, that we — me — we’ve done more in less than 20 years than any president in the history of our country. Tax cuts, regulation cuts, all of the things we’ve done — judges. By the way, I have two Supreme Court judges already….” [Interview: Donald Trump Calls In to Fox and Friends for An Interview – October 11, 2018]
The settings for these statements were often speeches in front of press or public. These were both labeled as “Remarks.”
Just under 15% of Trump’s comments relating to the Supreme Court were made on Twitter. A smaller portion were made during new interviews.
While the biggest issue linking Trump to the Supreme Court this year was Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation, this was not the only one. Trump pontificated on what would happen if the DACA or asylum cases reached the Supreme Court, on how the Court would uphold his travel ban, and how the Court might analyze his other immigration policies. He took the time to laud the Court’s 5-4 conservative decisions towards the end of the 2017 term in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 and in South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc, as well as the earlier decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
All in all, most of Trump’s statements regarding the Supreme Court were made with clear intentions. He was happy to praise the Court when it supported his policy agenda, looked forward with hopeful anticipation to the Court upholding challenges to his agenda, and was a fervent supporter of his nominees to the federal judiciary. While it is unclear whether these statements had much if any impact on the Court or on the individual justices, they were not made without the intent to possibly influence the justices to support his platforms. Examples of this include his tweets, “Happy Birthday to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a friend and great man!” [Twitter, Jun 23 ’18 @ 12:12 pm EDT] and “The Supreme Court is one of the main reasons I got elected President. I hope Republican Voters, and others, are watching, and studying, the Democrats Playbook.” [Twitter, Sep 18 ’18 @ 10:45 pm EDT] These types of comments are not uncommon to the President’s repertoire but seem somewhat of an anomaly when discussing a federal institution supposedly insulated from political pressure like the Supreme Court.
On Twitter: @AdamSFeldman.
Data consulting for attorneys at optimizedlegal.com