HARRISBURG, Pa. — It’s tough to digest the outrage from reporters or politicians who claim something “never happened before in our history” when such statements lack any hint of historical perspective, any intellectual curiosity to discover if something truly is unprecedented.

It has become a common problem, this reacting in the arrogance of the moment rather than trying to understand how our system has worked for more than 200 years.

In short, we should step back and learn American history, people.

Consider the reaction of the punditry and political classes, left and right, to one of President Trump’s tweets last week that described a member of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals as a “so-called judge.” Trump reacted to what he considered the judge’s legal meandering in temporarily halting an executive order that paused immigration from seven countries considered to be terrorism risks.

Yes, “so-called” is an insult coming from a president. And Trump might have done better — for himself, if nothing else — to have referred to the “so-called reasoning” of the judge’s decision, rather than instantly making things so personal.

But unprecedented?

Not even close — unless, of course, you never consider Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Baynes Johnson or Barack Obama, to name just a few, and their behavior toward not an appellate-level court but toward the highest court in the land.

Roosevelt, Johnson and Obama treated the U.S. Supreme Court in ways that were, arguably, a hell of a lot more disdainful — or even more potentially damaging — than Trump’s “so-called” line.

First, some perspective.

What is happening with Trump, and what happened with other presidents, is the inevitable conflict between three co-equal branches of government. Trump’s delivery, and perhaps even his apparent personalizing of every conflict, may be unprecedented — but the sentiment, in this instance, is not unprecedented; previous presidents have reacted with similar anger to jurists who frustrated them.

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This clash-of-titans conflict between presidents and courts has occurred in our history to varying degrees since the friction between Thomas Jefferson and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall over judicial authority.

Those conflicts at times have been heated, vindictive, even incendiary, with presidents publicly disparaging the courts or attempting to manipulate them in order to control legal outcomes, with varying degrees of coverage and success (or, more often, failure).

The most monumental case of a president both trying to control and to ridicule the courts occurred when FDR tried to “pack” the Supreme Court and lower courts while openly dismissing the high court’s justices as “nine old men” out of touch with society, a phrase he borrowed from newspaper columnist Drew Pearson.

FDR wanted to add up to six new Supreme Court justices, under the guise that anyone over the age of 70 and a half was too old to serve effectively; he publicly referred to the justices — at least four of whom routinely opposed his New Deal programs — as “aged and infirmed.”

He also unsuccessfully proposed adding more than 40 judges to lower federal courts, in order to tip the legal balance in favor of his policies.

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He ran headlong into a buzzsaw of public outrage; more than half of Americans opposed his court-packing plan, including his vice president, John Nance Garner, and many congressional Democrats.

For nearly 170 days the nation was gripped by the debate, leading to the worst rift between the three branches of government. Radio newscasts, newspaper stories, even movie newsreels, breathlessly reported on the controversy.

Protests erupted on both coasts and everywhere in between; letters from dismayed constituents buried congressional offices in both chambers.

FDR did not prevail, of course, and his popularity sank for a time. Luckily for him, he made his doomed proposal immediately after winning re-election by his largest margin ever, in 1936, and he had nearly four years to recover.

Since then, other presidents have tried to disparage or manipulate the courts.

LBJ placed a longtime political associate, Abe Fortas, on the court in part so that Fortas could alert him if his Great Society programs faced legal jeopardy and to keep the court from overturning them. He persuaded a sitting justice, Arthur Goldberg, to step down and become U.N. ambassador in order to open a seat for Fortas, who eventually was forced to resign in disgrace.

More recently, Obama didn’t like the way the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case. So he used personal charm and the presidency’s “bully pulpit” to attack the justices, declaring that the court was wrong and that something should be done to reverse it.

Obama leveled his attack not in a tweet but in front of all of three branches of government — including the justices themselves — at a State of the Union address, as well as every American who tuned into the speech that night.

There is a simple reason why such antagonism exists: The courts, especially the Supreme Court, are the one branch of government that can frustrate or stymie a president, and there is little that a chief executive can do about it. He or she cannot find a rival to run against a jurist in the next election, or withhold money from their campaigns or congressional districts to turn public opinion against them, because federal jurists are appointed for life.

Should Trump belittle a federal judge by calling him a “so-called” jurist? Probably not. Is such a personal attack unprecedented? Hardly.

Should we be shocked that this is how Trump conducts himself? No. This is who he is; this is who folks elected, for a variety of reasons.

Americans — those who admire Trump as well as those who detest him — would be better served if the reporting of and reaction to such moments enabled them to understand what is and isn’t unprecedented and how that fits into our system of governance.

Even better would be to give greater focus to real policy issues, rather than to petty politics and the personal slight of the moment.

Yes, the slights deserve attention, because sometimes they tell us much about those who engage in them. Yet, sometimes, they’re just slights, and don’t matter much at all.

November’s election suggested strongly that voters understood that truth and prefer to focus on what Trump’s doing, not what Trump’s saying.

Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.

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