The target of Donald Trump’s latest barrage of attacks is no stranger to ugly threats.
Back in the late 1990s, Gonzalo Curiel — then a federal prosecutor, now the federal judge handling two high-profile cases against Trump University — was believed to have had a hit placed on him by one of Mexico’s most dangerous cartels.
“This is typical Trump bullying tactics, but they’re not going to work on a man who survived a contract taken on his life by the Arellano Felix organization,” Jason Forge, a lawyer representing the challengers in a class-action lawsuit against Trump University, told TPM.
The lawsuit, Cohen v. Trump, was already a closely-watch case that alleged Trump University, through its “educational” programs, defrauded thousands of students. But Trump’s racially-tinged smears against the judge attracted additional scrutiny.
Three lawsuits are pending against Trump University, which Trump launched in the mid-aughts. Two of those cases are being heard in front of Curiel, a U.S. district judge in San Diego, and the third in New York. The controversy over the program — a get-quick-rich scheme promising students Trump’s real estate secrets — is quickly becoming a focal point of the 2016 race. And, not surprisingly, the presumptive GOP nominee hasn’t been mum about the lawsuits and has zeroed in on Curiel, who Trump said is a “Mexican” and a “hater” who is being “hostile” to him because of his border wall plans.
It’s not new that Trump relies on derogatory language to tear down his opponents; it’s been an hallmark of his presidential campaign. But because the recipient is now a federal judge, the torrent of insults are taking on new implications.
“It is an abuse of his position in the situation. He knows that the judge is constrained, unlike him, by the rules of decorum and truthfulness. The judge is not able to defend himself,” said Gene Iredale, a San Diego attorney who has been in the courtroom with Curiel, both when Curiel was a judge and a prosecutor.
The dog-whistle insinuations began in February, after the lawsuits were brought up during a debate. Trump told Fox News a few days later that Curiel’s treatment “has to do with I’m very, very strong on the border.”
“Now, he is Hispanic, I believe. He is a very hostile judge to me,” Trump said.
The racial subtext became text last week when Trump made Curiel the subject of a 12-minute rant at a campaign event in San Diego, where the judge is based and on the same day that the judge was hearing a motion to unseal docs pertaining to Trump University’s strategy.
“I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump. He’s a hater. His name is Gonzalo Curiel. And he is not doing the right thing,” Trump said, later suggesting Curiel was “Mexican.”
“I think Judge Curiel should be ashamed of himself. I think it is a disgrace he is doing this,” he continued, adding, “They ought to look into Judge Curiel because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace.”
Curiel was actually born in Indiana, though he is of Mexican descent. But perhaps the greatest irony in Trump’s attacks is that the Indiana University grad cut his prosecutorial teeth going after a major cartel that had been terrorizing communities around the U.S-Mexican border.
Working in the U.S. Attorneys’ offices in San Diego and in Los Angeles, Curiel was on the front lines in the effort to take down the Arellano Felix cartel, an extremely dangerous drug trafficking ring operating out of Tijuana. At its peak in the 1990s, the cartel had infiltrated Mexican law enforcement and was believed to be responsible for hundreds of disappearances and deaths. Curiel once described the cartel — led by the high-flying children of its kingpin, who had been incarcerated in 1989 for alleged connections to the murder a DEA agent — “the beautiful people, the 90210 of drug cartels” because of their links to well-to-do families in Mexico.
Curiel and his fellow prosecutors were able to dismantle the cartel in a partnership with the Mexican government. The alliance came to be after secret meetings in 1999 between Mexican and U.S. authorities, during which the Mexican heritage of the U.S. officials — including Curiel — helped build a bridge of trust.
”We were working without the disconnect of interpreters and barriers of culture. When it comes down to it, this involves the country of our parents,” Curiel — then the chief of narcotics at the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego — told the New York Times.
During that period, Curial was involved in numerous arrests and extraditions of members of the cartel. In one incident around 1997, a top lieutenant in the drug trafficking ring told a bugged government informant while they are both incarcerated that he planned to have Curiel assassinated and had put the request into cartel leaders. The threat prompted U.S. marshals to be placed as security at Curiel’s home and he drove around in in a bullet-proofed Suburban.
In 2006, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) appointed Curiel to the state Superior Court in San Diego and in 2011 President Obama nominated him to his current federal judgeship. His confirmation was approved in a Senate voice vote with little to-do a year later.
“This judge is the most even-handed, genial, decent judge you can find,” Iredale said
Legal commentators, both liberal and conservative, have worried that Trump’s anti-Curiel tirade is “dangerous,” “terrifying,” a form of judicial intimidation, and a sign that the potential leader of United States has “no apparent philosophy of how judges make decisions”
Trump’s attacks also put his legal team in an awkward position.
His defense is being led by Daniel Petrocelli, a flashy Hollywood attorney who famously won a civil lawsuit against O.J. Simpson brought by the family of Ronald Goldman, who was murdered along with Nicole Simpson, a crime for which Simpson was acquitted. When he was asked by the Hollywood Reporter back in April about the Curiel comments Trump made after the debate, Petrocelli laughed them off.
“Trump is a very opinionated guy,” Petrocelli said. “Yeah, it was certainly unusual. I think the judge recognizes the rhetoric that takes place in politics is not for the courtroom, and I think he’s separated the two.”
The comments were referenced, however, in Curiel’s order last Friday to unseal a set of documents related the lawsuit, an order that came hours after Trump slammed Curiel from the stump.
“Defendant became the front-runner for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential race, and has placed the integrity of these court proceedings at issue,” the order said.
The assaults on Curiel have continued, nonetheless, with Trump bashing Curiel again, via Twitter, over the weekend.
I have a judge in the Trump University civil case, Gonzalo Curiel (San Diego), who is very unfair. An Obama pick. Totally biased-hates Trump
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 30, 2016
I should have easily won the Trump University case on summary judgement but have a judge, Gonzalo Curiel, who is totally biased against me.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 30, 2016
“These tactics are sort of typical for Trump,” said Forge, the plaintiff’s lawyer in the Trump University case. “But I am really disappointed that O’Melveny-Myers, the law firm representing him, is tolerating this sort of thing.”