Schumer’s remarks sounded like a threat to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who took the rare step of publicly scolding a senator Wednesday. In a statement, Roberts denounced Schumer’s comments as “inappropriate” and “dangerous,” stressing, “All members of the court will continue to do their job, without fear or favor, from whatever quarter.”
Warnings that judges, let alone members of the Supreme Court, will “pay the price” and “won’t know what hit” them sound ominous. Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman argued the words didn’t mean what they sounded like they meant. Schumer was not threatening or encouraging violence, Goodman said.
The words were “a reference to the political price Senate Republicans will pay for putting these justices on the court, and a warning that the justices will unleash a major grass-roots movement on the issue of reproductive rights against the decision.”
But when Trump has criticized judges in language less harsh than Schumer’s, critics have accused him of attempting to intimidate the judiciary and have not let him off the hook.
So the dust-up over Schumer’s words soon turned into a controversy about hypocrisy — all the way around.
Trump supporters zeroed in on Schumer’s past comments targeting the president over his public criticism of judges. In February, for example, Trump went after U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who at the time was presiding over the case of his longtime confidant Roger Stone, and implied she harbored some broad bias.
Schumer later cited the incident as “another example of the president’s blatant contempt for the independence of the judiciary,” demanding Roberts take action.
Other conservatives turned their attention to media coverage of the moment, or lack thereof in their view.
“Where’s the media outrage?” tweeted House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).
Some in the liberal media did indeed condemn Schumer.
“Having watched the Schumer clip a few times, it really was out of line!” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted. “Not just for norms reasons (though I think those matter) but also because idle threats are dumb and expose impotence.”
On CNN, host Chris Cuomo acknowledged Schumer’s concerns about abortion rights, but remained critical of how the senator chose to express his feelings.
“Look, I know Trump says the same crap,” Cuomo said. “That’s why it’s wrong. … You’re just not helping by appearing to threaten justices. If you act like what you oppose, how are you any better? And that’s not ‘go high when they go low’, that’s reality.”
Still, many of Trump critics thought it took chutzpah for the president to complain.
“ ‘If a Republican did this,’ says the guy who has spent three consequence-free years attacking the integrity of the federal judiciary in general and individual district judges and two #SCOTUS Justices in particular,” tweeted Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Schumer was wrong, but Trump’s the last one who gets to say so.”
What about Roberts, critics asked. Why was he speaking out against Schumer after remaining largely silent about Trump?
“Whether you think Schumer’s comments were warranted or not,” tweeted Joyce White Vance, the former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, “for Chief Justice Roberts to reprimand him, after permitting so much from Trump to go unacknowledged, will damage public faith in the neutrality of the Court he leads. This feels like a misstep.”
Goodman, Schumer’s spokesman, struck the same chord: “For Justice Roberts to follow the right wing’s deliberate misinterpretation of what Senator Schumer said, while remaining silent when President Trump attacked Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg last week, shows Justice Roberts does not just call balls and strikes,” he said, referring to Roberts’s vision of his role as an “umpire” as enunciated during his confirmation hearings.
Aside from issuing a remarkable rebuke of Trump in 2018 over the president’s frequent references to “Obama judges,” Roberts had largely avoided publicly commenting on politicians criticizing the judiciary until Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Trump continued attacking what he perceived to be a double standard Wednesday night.
“If that were a Republican, you would see really bad things happening,” Trump said on “Hannity,” echoing a point he made in one of his tweets. “It’s very unequal justice and it’s a disgrace he was able to say something like that.”
Detractors pushed back.
“Schumer got carried away,” tweeted Ana Navarro-Cárdenas, a CNN commentator. “What he said in front of SCOTUS is not acceptable. … But please, spare us the pearl-clutching, faux-outrage, if you support a cult leader who has attacked RBG, Sotomayor … Really.”