It didn’t take more than a few hours for conservative-leaning media to start hacking away at the federal judges overseeing the criminal case against Paul Manafort. Manafort, along with his subordinate Rick Gates, pleaded not guilty to all charges in the federal district court for DC in front of Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson, who set bond at $10 million for Manafort and $5 million for Gates. Both men will await trial under home confinement.
But as Manafort and Gates were entering their pleas, Fox News’s website published a bit of backstory not on the defendants, but on Robinson and Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who will preside over the case going forward. The story is titled “Paul Manafort judges: Who are Deborah A. Robinson and Amy Berman Jackson?” and was published without a byline. It brings up details about both jurists’ careers that appear to have little to do with the particulars of a money-laundering trial.
The story describes Robinson as having “experienced the criminal justice system firsthand,” referencing her son’s 2014 drug conviction in Maryland. It also mentions her presiding over the trial of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney who was sentenced to two years in prison for his role in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson. (Libby’s sentence was commuted by then-President George W. Bush.)
Fox goes on to list Jackson’s 2011 appointment to the federal bench by President Barack Obama, her dismissal of a wrongful death suit against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by the families of US diplomats killed in Benghazi, Libya, and her time as a private-practice lawyer representing former Representative William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat who was sentenced to 13 years in prison after being found guilty of bribery. Perhaps most alarming for the Fox audience is that in 1992—19 years before she was ever a judge—Jackson contributed $1,000 to the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton.
A Fox News spokesperson did not respond to questions about why the article about the judges was commissioned, or why it’s running without a byline, but no matter: it’s already echoing across the conservative media ecosystem. The Drudge Report links to it under the teaser “JUDGE AN OBAMA APPOINTEE, CLINTON DONOR,” while Reddit users on r/The_Donald, a page venerating President Trump, refer to the judges’ assignment to the case as “rigged” and accuse the court of being “stacked.”
Everything Fox News wrote about Robinson and Jackson checks out. But its framing reeks of the campaign that the cable-news channel has been waging against Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating foreign meddling in the 2016 presidential election. As the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple writes, the network has spent much of the past week pushing the line that Mueller, having worked alongside ousted FBI Director James Comey during the Bush administration and continuing into the Obama administration, should either resign or be fired. Not terribly surprising, then, that while other networks began Monday morning with the charges against Manafort, Fox & Friends was doing a deep dive on cheeseburger emojis.
The story about Robinson and Jackson also brings to mind Trump’s own attacks on the federal judiciary, especially his antagonism last year of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who presided over the class-action lawsuit against Trump University. Trump turned Curiel, hardly a household name, into a more public figure by suggesting the Indiana-born judge was incapable of rendering a partial opinion because his Mexican ancestry was at odds with a presidential candidate running on an anti-immigration platform. (Trump settled the case for $25 million after the election, with Curiel presiding.)
In office, Trump has continued to punch at the judiciary in rather personal terms, attacking a “so-called judge” who ruled against an early iteration of the administration’s ban on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions took a swipe at judges who have ruled against administration policies. “Some judges have failed to respect our representatives in Congress and failed to appropriately respect the prerogatives and perspectives of the executive branch,” Sessions said during a speech at the Heritage Foundation.
The American Bar Association responded to Sessions quickly, saying that it was “alarmed” by the attorney general’s remarks.”
“While criticism of judicial decisions is a constitutionally protected right of every American and embedded in our tradition of free and open discussion about government, judges should not be attacked or diminished by another branch of government just because they do not rule in its favor,” ABA President Hilarie Bass said. “Judicial independence is critical to maintaining the rule of law in our nation.”
For the President and his supporters, though, picking away at that independence appears to be just as critical.