Trump's re-election plan keeps hitting a major obstacle: Chief Justice John Roberts

The chief justice probably doesn't object to Trump's political agenda. But he's a stickler for proper procedure

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published July 6, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump and Supreme Court Justice John Roberts (Getty Images/Salon)
US President Donald Trump and Supreme Court Justice John Roberts (Getty Images/Salon)

Take heart, Democrats: 2020 is not 2016. 

No, the polls aren't necessarily reliable on a national scale, and it's too early to predict what happens on Election Day with any accuracy. But they don't need to be unskewed. Donald Trump's campaign is clearly floundering in a way it never did through three separate campaign managers in 2016. His staff has remained relatively stable this go-round, with Brad Parscale still at the helm, remarkably enough, despite bigly flopping Trump's return to the campaign trail in Tulsa. It is Trump's bag of tricks that is clearly playing stale with key demographic groups in the swing states he needs to secure a second term.

It's the president's striking failure of leadership — in the face of a global pandemic and a national uprising against law enforcement and racial injustice — that's most likely the cause of his current predicament, according to the polls. But his administration's disregard for administrative competence and rule of law has left Trump without much of a buffer by way of bragging rights when it comes to accomplishments in office. 

To be sure, this president has achievements. His biggest, by far, has been a complete remaking of the federal courts with right-wing ideologues. His plan to secure a conservative transformation of the federal judiciary will undoubtedly pay big dividends for Republicans in the future. But right now it appears to be too little, too late to save his campaign from his administration's repeated embarrassment at the hands of federal judges — most notably, Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even while ruling in favor of the Trump administration's most controversial moves, like the blatantly targeted ban on travelers to the U.S. from majority-Muslim countries early on in the president's term, Roberts has admonished the administration to present legitimate reasons for its actions. Years later, Roberts found himself ruling against Trump on three major cases — even while making it clear he did not object to the end result, but rather the skewed process — within just over two weeks. Beyond the Supreme Court, federal courts have consistently ruled against this administration, taking the wind out of Trump's re-election sails even before the pandemic and Black Lives Matter. 

After Trump's campaign stop at the U.S.-Mexico border last week, the Pentagon announced that up to 4,000 troops will be deployed to the border starting this October. Surprise! It's a replay of 2018's fear-mongering about migrant "caravans" overwhelming the border ahead of the midterm elections. But the next day, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stepped on the announcement with a 2-1 decision (a Trump appointee dissenting) that the administration had violated the law by using congressionally-allocated funds for the military to pay contractors supposedly working to build his wall. In this case, Roberts has previously sided with Trump's diversion of military funds to his wall, but even if this most recent decision is successfully appealed to the Supreme Court, it is unlikely to get a ruling before the November election. With Friday's rulings reinstating the injunction against the Trump administration, no new funds will be diverted to add to the mere three miles of new border wall constructed since Trump took office. Thousands of military and National Guard troops will be stationed at the border, ready to repeal an invading horde that isn't coming. 

Trump's apparent failure to snatch money from the military for his already-failed wall tracks with his recent own-goal of legally challenging the Affordable Health Care Act, a popular law, in a time when millions of people are suffering job losses, and thereby access to their employer-based health insurance. It's the type of self-sabotage that comes either from blind commitment to an ideological cause or complete delusion about the political ramifications. It's precisely that disregard, particularly for the order of law and procedure, that has turned John Roberts into one of Trump's biggest foes. 

Roberts' most recent controversial rulingsagainst adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, increased abortion restrictions, continued discrimination against LGBTQ people and efforts to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects Dreamers from deportation — have put the Trump campaign in a bind. The Supreme Court's made the president look like a big loser. Repeatedly, federal courts have found that the president violated the Administrative Procedure Act. As Roberts has written, the administration has time and again offered "contrived" reasons for its actions. 

Still, Trump has seen some some recent success in the courts. 

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for Congress to create an agency with a leader who could not be removed at the president's sole discretion — paving the wave for Trump to oust independent inspectors generals, as he is wont to do, even more easily. On Thursday, the Court decided to hear the administration's  appeal of a lower court's ruling to release the redacted portion of Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump campaign's involvement in Russia's election meddling in 2016. The decision likely puts any potential revelation on ice until after the election — a move that clearly helps Trump. 

Now we await a decision on Trump's tax case any day to see if John Roberts will lay the final nail in the president's re-election campaign coffin by allowing Congress to see his tax returns, or sends one last lifeboat to Trump's sinking ship.  

In the long run, Trump's judges will have moved the federal courts further to the right than under any president since Ronald Reagan. But as Roberts' recent rulings make clear, the Trump administration's fatal incompetence has undermined the president's political fortunes. It has also killed at least 130,000 Americans this year, and counting — the ultimate object lesson in why 2020 is no 2016.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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