Reporting on the Muslim travel ban, the Boston Globe, in a seemingly jokey manner, but with some serious intent, said that, “Adult supervision, in the form of a federal judge in Seattle, has temporarily restored sanity to our immigration laws after nine hectic days.” Comparing Trump to a child who is driven by instincts instead of logic, the article expressed a widespread feeling of relief on the short-term break from the madness of totally blocking travel for refugees and visa holders from seven mainly-Muslim countries. 

Despite Trump’s harsh tactics, protesters against his ban retained their humour. A placard, held by a Muslim woman, said: “We gave you Hummus, Have Some Respect.”

Trump’s executive order to ban all “terrorists” from seven Muslim-majority countries was halted by a temporary restraining order issued by federal judge James L. Robart in Seattle on Friday. These so-called terrorists were but students, professors, mothers and children. On Saturday, the Trump administration filed a notice to appeal the decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. On Sunday, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco denied the government’s appeal to restore Trump’s ban and ruled that the controversial order will be suspended at least until Monday. 

Trump responded by writing on Twitter: “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!” The US, however, has been rigorous for years in its vetting for visas and refugees before Trump’s presidency. 

But in the next few days, the fate of the president’s executive order will become clearer. The appeals court requested that those who are challenging Trump’s ban should file written arguments by 4am (Eastern Time), on Monday and that Justice Department lawyers should reply by 6pm (ET). A hearing would be scheduled to rule whether the ban should remain suspended. 

Hallelujah! The System of Checks and Balances Works

The Constitution is the supreme law of the US. Its first three articles refer to the federal government’s division into three branches with different powers. These three branches of government are the executive, the judicial and the legislative. The executive consists of the president, the legislative consists of the Congress and the judicial comprises of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. These three branches create a system of checks and balances within the Constitution so that no branch becomes more powerful than the other, since each branch is controlled by the other two. 

If Congress passes a law and the president decides to veto that law, Congress can overrule that veto with a vote of two-thirds of both branches. A law passed by Congress may be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, whose members are appointed by the president. But Congress has the final say on the president’s appointments. 

The ability of the Seattle federal judge to block Trump’s ban is based on the judiciary’s power represented by federal courts. As David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said: “The courts standing up to this order have reminded us that our democracy depends on judges following the law and making sure the President follows the law.” He added: “The judges concluded, almost uniformly, that Trump pretty likely violated the law and the constitution.”

James L. Robart

The federal judge who defied Trump’s order and was mocked on Twitter by Trump, was appointed by George W Bush and joined the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington in 2004. He was confirmed on a recorded 99-0 vote of the US Senate in June, 2004. On Twitter, Trump called him a “so-called judge” and described his decision to temporarily suspend Trump’s ban as “ridiculous.”

According to the Guardian, Robart’s friend, Douglas Adkins, a private equity investor who has known Robart since his childhood, attested that  “he is relatively apolitical”, “he’s not a conservative or a liberal. He’s a man interested in the law and fairness.” Adkins also said that Robart and his wife have been foster parents to many immigrant children, mainly from south-east Asia. 

Paul Lawrence was one of the attorneys who filed an amicus brief—a legal document filed in appeals court cases by non-litigants (not involved in a lawsuit) that advises the court of relevant supplementary information for consideration—in support of Washington State regarding the immigration ban. He explained that Robart’s involvement with children “may have helped contribute to his understanding of the people impacted by this ruling but would not have shaped his interpretation of the rule of law.” 

Robart has been supportive of diversity, sensitive towards cases of inequality and he was known for saying in 2016 that “black lives matter.” In 2011, he also responded to a change in a state rule which would have cut government funding for disabled children and families in Washington by blocking it temporarily. 

Adkins also defended Robart by saying that “His view is that criticism is important.” 

Trump’s anti-judiciary attacks

Many have compared Trump’s tweets against judge Robart to Trump’s 2016 attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel. Curiel was the federal judge presiding over civil fraud lawsuits against Trump University, and Trump’s attack on the “Mexican heritage” of Curiel was seen as “an unusual affront on an independent judiciary.” After students’ accusations that Trump’s institution was just a “scam university” he agreed to pay them $25m. But Trump had attacked the American-born Curiel for being “biased” because he was Mexican and Trump was against immigration and was calling for a US-Mexico wall.

Now, by tweeting again, it appears no one can control Trump’s inelegant attack on almost everyone that tries to question or rein in his power.  It is an example of his “disdain for an independent judiciary,” Senator Chuck Schumer said. Particularly, when his nominee to the Supreme Court, federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch, is about to be confirmed. Gorsuch will need to “be an independent check”, said Schumer.

The problem arising with the “illegality” of the travel ban and Trump’s attacks on the federal judge have highlighted the importance of the system of checks and balances. On Sunday, the independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said that Congress and the courts should control each other and the president. “We are a democracy, not a one-man show,” Sanders said. “We are not another Trump enterprise.” He also warned: “We have a president I fear is moving us in a very authoritarian direction, a president who apparently has contempt for the entire judiciary.” 

Sanders couldn’t be more correct.  Echoing this, in an article in the Economist, a legal scholar, Bruce Ackerman, wondered, “Can the system that has put a demagogue in the White House now hold him to account?” As Trump’s barking out orders, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to restrain his power. 

But, if anyone wonders whether we are moving forward or backwards, towards authoritarianism, Trump’s Red Cross Ball on Saturday at his Mar-a-Lago Club gave us some clues. The Ball was called “From Vienna to Versailles” and everything was decorated in Old World 18th century style, with even service staff wearing powdered wigs and Marie Antoinette dresses. This frivolousness and extravagance couldn’t be more far removed from reality or politics. In this alternative fantasy universe where Trump can play king, we can imagine him, like Marie Antoinette, unable to understand the needs of the people, exclaiming “Let them eat cake.”