Donald Trump had a bad day in court on Tuesday, or more accurately, the court.
The former president absorbed a resounding defeat in the Supreme Court during his long campaign to hide his tax returns, which are now set to go before a Democrat-run House committee. Republican-appointed appellate court judges, meanwhile, have seemed cool towards his latest attempt to slow down the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case. A New York judge has set an October 2023 trial date for the state’s $250 million fraud case against Trump, three of his children and his organization, which falls just before the presidential primary season republicans. And while hangovers persist from his false fraud claims in 2020, Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham testified before a Georgia grand jury investigating the former president’s alleged election-stealing bid.
Given Trump’s massive legal exposure and habit of using the deliberative pace of the courts to defer accountability, it’s not unusual for him to have a tough time on same-day cases playing out at the same time.
But Tuesday’s developments marked the first time the legal chaos and the danger surrounding it has come into full focus since declaring his third bid for the Republican presidential nomination last week. It’s the first test of whether the swirling courtroom danger awaiting him on multiple fronts will reduce his ability to mount a credible campaign and whether it will deter GOP primary voters who might consider an alternative candidate.
Several developments on Tuesday — including the filing case and the reality that Trump’s tax returns will soon end up in Democrat hands weeks before Republicans take control of the House — suggest that two consistent legal strategies by Trump may be starting to unravel. The first is his assertion that he, as a former president, deserves different treatment under the law than other American citizens. The second is that his delayed, delayed, delayed approach might reach the limits of his usefulness. However, the ex-president has long managed to keep at arm’s length scandals that could have brought down other politicians. And he’s sure to use new twists in the cases to bolster the persecution narrative that’s central to his new campaign for the White House.
But outgoing Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is also considering campaigning in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, told CNN on Tuesday that new evidence of the turmoil surrounding Trump could be game changer for GOP voters.
“It’s dizzying for the public to see this kind of chaos surrounding a presidential candidate,” Hutchinson told CNN’s Brianna Keilar. “To me, it’s very problematic and reflects all the challenges that come with a Trump candidacy.”
Trump’s refusal to follow precedent by showing his tax returns to the public during the 2016 presidential campaign was one of the first signs of his determination to flout the norms. So the Supreme Court’s decision not to stop the Internal Revenue Service from releasing its tax filings to the House Ways and Means Committee represented a significant personal, as well as political, defeat.
The committee’s Democratic leadership says it wants returns to decide whether tax laws affecting sitting presidents need to be changed. The possibility of hidden conflicts of interest or obligations owed by presidents or missed or underpaid payments on those returns could be problematic given a chief executive’s power to set tax policy. A lower court had previously held that the committee had a legitimate legislative purpose to see the returns. But with only weeks left before Republicans take control of the House, it’s unclear how much time Democrats would have to review returns or potentially make changes to the law.
It’s also not a certainty that the public will see the returns Trump has long sought to protect. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat who sits on the committee, told CNN’s Erin Burnett Tuesday that the documents were subject to privacy protections. But he also said the panel had a chance to release the documents publicly and that “the pressure of time here creates all the more reason to consider doing so.”
On the substance of the case, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said the Supreme Court upheld a vital rule. “Since Magna Carta, the principle of oversight has been upheld and today it is no different. This goes above policy and the committee will now conduct the oversight we have been seeking for the past three and a half years.”
But the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, warned that by stepping aside, the court set a precedent that would mean no citizen could be safe from a majority political party.
“By effectively granting the majority party in both houses of Congress nearly unlimited power to target and make public the tax returns of political enemies — political figures, private citizens, or even Supreme Court justices themselves — they are opening a dangerous new political battleground where no citizen is safe,” Brady said in a statement.
An interesting wrinkle will be whether Trump’s loss in the tax filing fight affects how future Republican presidential candidates handle their financial records. By releasing them, they couldn’t simply re-establish a modern tradition of transparency for presidents. They could potentially get around Trump.
Trump’s other major disappointment came in the matter of the Mar-a-Lago documents, with key protections the former president obtained from a lower court judge in Florida now appearing in jeopardy. The Justice Department is investigating the former president for potential obstruction of justice, criminal handling of government documents and violation of the Espionage Act, which prohibits the unauthorized storage of national defense information.
A three-judge panel on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has expressed skepticism about Trump’s arguments about why he was entitled to a third party, known as a special master, to sift through some 22,000 pages of materials taken from his Florida resort . A key question at issue here is whether Trump, as a former president, is entitled to the kind of judicial intervention that could slow countless routine legal cases involving other Americans if it were widely adopted.
In a comment widely noted by legal analysts, appeals court chief Judge William Pryor questioned Trump’s arguments.
“We need to be concerned about the precedent we would create that would allow any felony target of a federal criminal investigation to go to district court and have a district court hear this type of petition, exercise equitable jurisdiction (which allows a court to intervene) and interfere with the ongoing executive branch investigation,” Pryor told Trump attorney James Trusty.
“Aside from the fact that it’s a former president, everything else…is indistinguishable,” Pryor told Trusty during the discussions.
Another judge, Britt Grant, chastised Trusty for calling the FBI’s search for Trump’s property “a raid,” as the former president has repeatedly done. “Do you think a raid is the right term for executing a warrant?” Grant asked. Trusty apologized for using the term “uploaded”.
Ryan Goodman, a former Defense Department special counsel, told CNN’s Burnett the court could decide to overrule Judge Aileen Cannon, who appointed the special master, in what would be a major blow to the former president.
“They would basically say you never should have exercised jurisdiction in the first place, Judge Cannon, you didn’t have that,” Goodman said.
Any such move could significantly accelerate the docs case after Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to oversee it last week.
It could also offer a perspective of clarity to the public, who now must evaluate yet another unprecedented political scenario involving Trump. The former president’s multiple lawsuits have slowed both cases, but offered signs on Tuesday that each could be moving closer to resolution.