Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s well-known candor was on display in her chambers late Monday, when she declined to retreat from her earlier criticism of Donald Trump and even elaborated on it.
“He is a faker,” she said of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, going point by point, as if presenting a legal brief. “He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego. … How has he gotten away with not turning over his tax returns? The press seems to be very gentle with him on that.”
Ginsburg’s comments came in a previously scheduled interview related to my research for a book on Chief Justice John Roberts. I took a detour to raise the reverberations from her criticism of Trump to The Associated Press and New York Times in recent interviews. “I can’t imagine what this place would be — I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president,” she had said in the Times interview published Monday.
Trump’s spokesperson responded to the latest comments from Ginsburg with a reference to Trump’s tax returns.
“As you know, Mr. Trump is undergoing a routine audit and plans to release his returns when completed,” said Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks. “No further comment.”
Trump himself slammed Ginsburg’s criticism of him, telling The New York Times, “I think it’s highly inappropriate that a United States Supreme Court judge gets involved in a political campaign, frankly.”
“I think it’s a disgrace to the court and I think she should apologize to the court,” Trump added. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw it.”
It is highly unusual for a justice to make such politically charged remarks, and some critics said she crossed the line. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday sharply criticized Ginsburg’s criticism of Trump, calling her comments “totally inappropriate.”
Having met with Ginsburg on a regular basis for more than a decade and sometimes been struck by her frankness, I found her response classic. The 83-year-old justice expressed no regret on Monday for the comments or surprise that she would be criticized. Any disbelief she expressed stemmed from the fact that Trump has gotten so far in the election cycle.
“At first I thought it was funny,” she said of Trump’s early candidacy. “To think that there’s a possibility that he could be president … ” Her voice trailed off gloomily.
“I think he has gotten so much free publicity,” she added, drawing a contrast between what she believes is tougher media treatment of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and returning to an overriding complaint: “Every other presidential candidate has turned over tax returns.”
Ginsburg was appointed to the high court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and is now the senior member of the liberal wing and leading voice countering conservative Chief Justice Roberts. She has drawn a cult-like following among young people who have nicknamed her The Notorious R.B.G., a play on American rapper The Notorious B.I.G.
I have witnessed her off-bench bluntness many times through the years. During 2009 oral arguments in a case involving a 13-year-old Arizona girl who had been strip-searched by school administrators looking for drugs, she was troubled that some male justices played down any harm to the student. “They have never been a 13-year-old girl,” Ginsburg told me. “It’s a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn’t think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood.”
Earlier in 2009, she was being treated for pancreatic cancer yet made sure to attend President Barack Obama’s televised speech to a joint session of Congress, explaining that she wanted people to know the Supreme Court was not all men. “I also wanted them to see I was alive and well, contrary to that senator who said I’d be dead within nine months.” She was referring to Sen. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican, who had said she would likely die within nine months from the pancreatic cancer. Bunning later apologized.
It was evident in our interview on Monday that when Ginsburg imagines who would succeed President Obama, she does not expect Trump to prevail over Clinton.
Acknowledging her own age and that Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer will turn 80 and 78, respectively, Ginsburg said of the possible next president: “She is bound to have a few appointments (to the Supreme Court) in her term.”
CNN’s Manu Raju and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.
By Joan Biskupic
CNN Legal Analyst and Supreme Court Biographer