The Slatest

Donald Trump’s Statement About the “Mexican” Judge Is More Damning Than He Realizes

Protesters hold up signs near Thursday’s Trump rally in San Jose, California.

Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump has issued a statement about the civil fraud case against Trump University. He argues, essentially, that his allegations of bias against Gonzalo Curiel, the judge in the case, aren’t bigoted. Based on the statement’s sloppiness—grammatical mistakes, revisited grudges, and nonsense terms such as “Hispanic descent”—it looks as though Trump wrote (or dictated) the statement himself. This is how he thinks about ethnicity and fairness, not under interrogation by journalists, but in his own considered words. It’s damning.

Trump says his criticisms of Curiel “have been misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage.” That’s not true, he argues: “I do not feel that one’s heritage makes them incapable of being impartial.” Trump’s complaint is narrower: that “based on the rulings that I have received … I feel justified in questioning whether I am receiving a fair trial.”

The next seven paragraphs rehash Trump’s beefs about how the case has been handled. Then he gets to what everyone wants to know: Why did he bring up Curiel’s “Mexican heritage”? How is that not prejudiced? Here is Trump’s explanation:

Normally, legal issues in a civil case would be heard in a neutral environment. However, given my unique circumstances as nominee of the Republican Party and the core issues of my campaign that focus on illegal immigration, jobs and unfair trade, I have concerns as to my ability to receive a fair trial.

I am fighting hard to bring jobs back to the United States. Many companies—like Ford, General Motors, Nabisco, Carrier—are moving production to Mexico. Drugs and illegal immigrants are also pouring across our border. This is bad for all Americans, regardless of their heritage.

Due to what I believe are unfair and mistaken rulings in this case and the Judge’s reported associations with certain professional organizations, questions were raised regarding the Obama appointed Judge’s impartiality. It is a fair question. I hope it is not the case.

Trump thinks this explanation absolves him of prejudice in several ways. First, he’s not saying Mexican Americans can’t do fine work. In that sense, his criticism isn’t “categorical.” He’s saying that ethnic feelings of affinity—presumably, regardless of the ethnicity in question—can affect a judge.

Second, Trump isn’t trying to hurt Mexican Americans or Hispanics in particular. The bad stuff he’s trying to stop at the border, he argues—drugs and illegal immigrants coming in, factories and jobs going out—hurts “all Americans,” Hispanics included.

Third, Trump is offering ground rules. He’s suggesting that ethnicity is a legitimate topic of speculation only in the context of judicial bias—which Trump thinks he has demonstrated independently in this case—and only where ethnicity is relevant to the facts of the case. Ethnicity is relevant here, according to Trump, because conflicts with Mexico over jobs, trade, and illegal immigration are “core issues” of Trump’s campaign. It’s reasonable to ask whether a Mexican American judge can treat such a defendant fairly.

Fourth, Trump is raising the judge’s “associations with certain professional organizations” as additional grounds for suspicion. In this case, he’s referring to Curiel’s membership in the San Diego La Raza Lawyer’s Association.

Let’s concede the first two points, at least for the sake of argument. Trump isn’t a visceral hater of all Latinos, and he isn’t trying to hurt Latino Americans. The harder question is whether he’s a more sophisticated kind of demagogue—one who uses ethnicity, race, or religion for advantage in particular contexts when he thinks it might serve his interests.

That’s where Trump’s third point comes in. To impute ethnic hostility to a judge, you need two things. The judge’s ethnicity is only half of the equation. The other half is something about the defendant that would arouse hostility from a person of that ethnicity. Trump suggests that the answer is in his campaign platform. He’s challenging Mexican interests. Therefore, a Mexican American judge is likely to resent him.

But now we have a problem. Trump just said, in his first two points, that there’s no reason for Mexican Americans to dislike him. He has argued that his pro-American policies would serve Hispanic Americans, just like other Americans. And he denies that anything he has said or done is categorically hostile to Latinos. So there’s no reason for Curiel, a Mexican American, to be biased against Trump—a candidate whose policies, at most, might be inimical to Mexicans.

Unless, of course, Trump doesn’t really believe in this distinction between Mexicans and Mexican Americans. In that case, his concern about Curiel makes perfect sense. Trump recognizes that a Mexican American judge has grounds to dislike him, because Trump’s routine attacks on Mexicans are an implicit assault on all people of Mexican descent.

Trump can’t have it both ways. Either his rhetoric about Mexican factories, immigrants, and rapists is ethnically neutral, or it isn’t. If it’s neutral, there’s no basis to accuse Curiel of ethnic bias against Trump. If it isn’t neutral—if Trump believes his own rhetoric is ethnically loaded—he’s essentially admitting that he’s an opportunistic bigot.

The same goes for Trump’s fourth point, about Curiel’s membership in the La Raza lawyers’ group. It’s a bar association for Latinos. If you impute prejudice based on somebody’s membership in a Latino bar association—or in the NAACP or B’nai B’rith—you’re basically saying that being a minority, and belonging to a minority community or civil rights organization, is grounds for disqualification. That’s functionally equivalent to categorical prejudice.

So which is it, Donald? Does Judge Curiel have reason to see you as an enemy, or doesn’t he? Do you believe that membership in an ethnic organization is disqualifying, or don’t you? If the answer is no, then let the case proceed, and stop trying to justify your insinuations. If the answer is yes, then say so, and let’s call you what you really are.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.