US President Donald Trump watches as Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas swears in Amy Coney Barrett as a US Supreme Court Associate Justice, flanked by her husband Jesse M. Barrett, during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House October 26, 2020, in Washington, DC.
See Amy Coney Barrett get sworn in as Supreme Court Justice
05:30 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

In the dark of night, five days before Halloween, President Donald Trump put on a scary spectacle. On the South Lawn of the spookily lit presidential mansion, hundreds of guests gathered to see Amy Coney Barrett take her oath to become a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Frida Ghitis

The event was enough to send chills down Americans’ spines. Some felt joy but, for many others, with the clock ticking to a tense Election Day, there was something ominous in the air.

Only hours earlier, we had learned that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, another Trump nominee, had echoed Trump’s inflammatory tweets about mail-in votes, raising the specter that Trump’s election-year efforts to sow confusion, undermine faith in the election and disenfranchise voters, could ultimately pay off.

A confirmation … and campaign spectacle

Justice Barrett’s swearing-in ceremony came less than 40 days after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, making Barrett’s confirmation one of the fastest in the country’s history and the first one in more than a century and a half to occur without a single vote from the opposition party.

The swearing in also happened exactly one month after the White House celebration of Barrett’s nomination, which proved to be a Covid-19 superspreader event, after which at least a dozen people tested positive for the virus, including the President, his wife, members of Congress, White House staffers, journalists and others.

It was an event that historians no doubt will study as evidence of presidential malpractice. Still, the President defiantly returned to the scene of the misdeed to hold another gathering (though, this time, almost everyone in attendance was masked).

It was quintessential Trump: brazenly ignoring the experts and putting on the performance, no matter the consequences. He proved himself willing to extract political benefit from recklessness, inflame the country’s divisions and undermine its democratic institutions.

No matter the cost, Trump did it because it helps him, despite the precedent set when Republicans refused to so much as even hold a hearing on Merrick Garland’s SCOTUS nomination in 2016 nomination, their argument being that it was too close to the presidential election.

This time around, Trump made it clear he wanted to fill the empty court seat before Election Day, presumably because he expects his nominee to side with him if the election ends up being decided by the court. If that was not enough to place Barrett in an awkward position from the start, the ceremony on Monday night went a long way toward politicizing the one institution that is meant to remain above politics.

The Supreme Court derives much of its power from the perception that it is largely independent of politics. The over-the-top event had the look of a Trumpian campaign stunt more than a Supreme Court swearing in. Barrett, Trump and their spouses waved from the balcony, evoking the image of Trump’s dramatic face mask removal on a White House balcony upon returning from the hospital.

That resonance to Trump’s campaign grandiosity, the partisanship that marked Barrett’s appointment and Trump’s own statements about the role of the court in the upcoming election, are evidence of the blatant politicization of the Barrett nomination, undercutting the court’s credibility. America stands on a knife’s edge, the President is sharpening that knife.

The power of political court rulings

Monday night became all the more significant because just before the confirmation ceremony, the Supreme Court barred Wisconsin from granting an extension for mail-in ballots arriving after election day, effectively boosting Trump’s effort to manipulate the election.

His postmaster general, a Republican mega-donor, oversaw dysfunctional breakdowns of the postal service, resulting in epic delays in service, while Trump mendaciously claimed mail-in voting would be susceptible to fraud.

Agreeing with the majority on the Wisconsin case, Justice Kavanaugh was in curious alignment with Trump’s Monday tweet (which Twitter flagged as misleading) that there are “Big problems… with Mail in Ballots…Must have final total on November 3rd.”

Kavanaugh reinforced Trump’s message, writing, ” …States want to avoid the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after election day and potentially flip the results of an election.” Justice Elena Kagan shot back in her dissent, that “there are no results to ‘flip’ until all valid votes are counted,” adding that nothing is more suspicious than refusing to count the votes.

It is against this backdrop, with Trump still refusing to say he will accept the election results, that the President stood alongside Barrett as she took her oath.

Trump’s SCOTUS firewall

There is an ongoing, high-stakes election disinformation campaign, and Trump is trying to enlist the country’s highest court. Kavanaugh has given a concerning indication of how he may rule in a case regarding the presidential election. Monday night’s ceremony looked partly like an effort to sign up another Court member to the project.

It was also a reminder of Trump’s pandemic gaslighting campaign, in which he tries to make us question reality by preposterously telling Americans that “we’re rounding the corner” on a pandemic that is surging across the country. Despite the precautions, the evening was an affront to public health advice. The White House is in the midst of yet another Covid-19 outbreak, with at least five people contracting coronavirus. The administration tried to conceal the outbreak – again.

Trump could have held a smaller ceremony. It could have been televised around the country. He could have done many things differently. But he presumably wanted to distill maximum gain from this opportunity.

It was an chance for Trump to remind the Republican faithful that he delivered another Supreme Court justice, with the hope that they will reward him at the polls.

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Conservative justices, including three he chose, now hold a 6-3 majority in the court and may help him win reelection. If a Democratic landslide makes that impossible, he undoubtedly hopes they will side with him as he faces a potential tsunami of legal troubles regarding his taxes, business and allegations of sexual assault.

Justice Barrett is now part of Trump’s firewall.

At least Trump hopes she will be. The politically tinged event, which many deemed inappropriate, is a reminder that she has Trump to thank for becoming one of the most powerful people in the country. Will it affect her judgment? Let’s hope not. But, from Trump’s perspective, it couldn’t hurt. And if a few people get sick in the process, if American democracy is undercut in the process, that’s seemingly not scary at all to him.