Donald Trump took a drubbing at the Supreme Court on Monday, as the justices in a flurry of orders dealt critical blows to his efforts to shield his tax records from a New York prosecutor and his oft-repeated false claims that there was widespread voter fraud during the last election.
It’s as if the justices, in one day, sought to wipe their hands of lingering issues that had been heralded by the former President in a cascade of tweets, legal filings and statements during the last months of his administration.
The focus on Monday was not Trump administration policies, but instead disputes deeply personal to Trump himself: election 2020, his tax records and even allegations made by adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. Trump lost badly in the election and tax returns cases, and the Supreme Court made clear it wanted nothing to do with the case brought by the adult-film actress.
The court’s action comes now that the election has brought the Trump era – which was punctuated from the start by attacks on the judiciary as well as legal disputes that ricocheted throughout the courts – to a close.
The past several years featured the then-president feuding with Chief Justice John Roberts at one point and repeatedly calling on the court to step in to void election results. After he lost the election, his tweets, just before he was banned from Twitter, reached a crescendo. Trump said, for instance, that the court had to show “great Courage & Wisdom” to “save the USA.” At another point, after a loss in a dispute related to Texas, he said the court “really let us down.” “No wisdom, no courage” he tweeted.
To be sure, Trump’s tweets likely played little role in the court’s deliberations. But still, the justices witnessed Trump supporters storming the Capitol, across the street from their own headquarters. And although the Supreme Court was never breached, the building is now surrounded by high fences erected after the riot.
The justices are still scheduled to hear challenges to actual Trump policies on issues such as immigration and abortion, but on Monday they refused to give credence to his claims of voter fraud, and they opened the door to legal complications down the road now that a New York prosecutor can continue his investigation.
For the most part, the justices – including the three Trump appointed to the high court – kept their votes and voices silent, although conservatives Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito would have allowed a challenge brought by Pennsylvania Republicans in a case related to the last election.
But without comment, the court denied six other appeals concerning the election, one brought by Trump’s own lawyers.
As for Trump, he released a statement. “I will fight on, just as I have, for the last five years (even before I was successfully elected) despite all of the election crimes that were committed against me,” he said. Referring to the investigation into his tax records, he added, “The Supreme Court never should have let this fishing expedition happen, but they did.”
The order that will allow the Manhattan district attorney’s office to obtain Trump’s tax returns was a mere 16 words long, and there was no explanation for the action or even a public breakdown of the vote count.
Trump’s personal lawyers had asked the justices to step in and block the release of the tax returns to the prosecutor while they prepared a formal appeal to the Supreme Court. In court papers, Trump’s lawyer William Consovoy called the subpoena for the documents “sprawling,” “expansive” and “unlimited,” arguing that it amounted to an “unlawful fishing expedition.” He asked the justices to step in and freeze the subpoena while the case continued.
Recall that last term the justices did reject Trump’s broad claims of immunity in a 7-2 vote but sent the case back to the lower courts to allow Trump to make other arguments. The lower courts ruled against Trump again, catapulting the case back to the high court.
The justices sat on the emergency petition for months, dealing Trump a win in the short term. Because of that delay, the subpoena did not go out during the last days of the election campaign or his presidency.
But with no noted dissents, the subpoena can go forward thanks to Monday’s order. Cyrus Vance, the New York prosecutor, issued a simple statement. “The work continues,” he said. It was the move he needed to continue and even escalate his inquiry.
Trump’s lawyers can still formally ask the justices to take up their appeal. But the justices have dealt with the heart of the case by allowing the tax returns to go out, even if they are shielded by grand jury secrecy rules. When Consovoy asked the justices to freeze the subpoena, he told them that once the documents are surrendered, “confidentiality will be lost for all time.”
“The court cannot unring that bell,” he told the court.
The justices did sit on the petition for weeks, suggesting one or two may have been preparing to explain their votes or issue dissents from the majority’s order. But if that were the case, something happened to change someone’s mind. The cert petition is due in early March. Perhaps there will be more explanation when the court deals with that.
2020 election cases
On Monday the justices also denied an appeal from Republicans in Pennsylvania challenging a state Supreme Court decision that allowed mail-in ballots received up to three days after Election Day to be counted in light of the pandemic.
The ballots – roughly 10,000 – were not enough to swing the election results but lawyers urged the justices to take up the case, arguing the state court had exceeded its authority by allowing the late-arriving ballots and that underlying issues in the case would matter in future elections.
Alito, Gorsuch and Thomas – in his own fiery dissent – did not agree with the court’s order and said so. But Trump’s two other appointees, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, remained publicly silent. It would have taken four justices to grant the case, and it appears neither voted in favor of the Republicans.
Without comment, the justices also rejected other election-related challenges from battleground states, including one brought by Trump’s own lawyer.
In that case, also challenging decisions by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Trump lawyer John Eastman told the justices in court papers that “collectively, these three decisions resulted in counting approximately 2.6 million mail ballots in violation of the law as enacted by the Pennsylvania Legislature,” he said.
After the election, Trump spoke vehemently about election fraud even without success in the courts. On Monday, the Supreme Court’s message was clear: We are staying out of the 2020 election.
Stormy Daniels case dismissed
Trump did win a victory of sorts on Monday when the justices rejected a defamation claim by Stormy Daniels, leaving in place lower court opinions that went against the former adult-film actress, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.
But again, it was the Supreme Court that put up a stop sign, refusing to review the lower court decision that went against Clifford.
In another order without comment, the court indicated it wasn’t interested in reviewing another part of Trump’s life.