30 Jul Airo AV Announced Inside the Supreme Court’s internal deliberations over Trum…
Chief Justice John Roberts had the majority on his side after the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether President Donald Trump’s financial records could be released to congressional Democrats and a New York prosecutor, according to multiple sources familiar with the inner workings of the court.
But the vote among the justices was close, and the narrow margin did not satisfy Roberts — or his colleagues.
They wanted a coalition of liberal and conservative justices — as much ideological unity as possible — for the decisions regarding presidential power, four sources with knowledge of the internal deliberations told CNN. It would take nearly two months to produce the two 7-2 rulings.
The justices could not purge Trump from their thinking, the sources told CNN, but they were aware that these disputes were not just about him. During their deliberations, CNN has learned, the justices struggled to balance the interests of the executive branch and those of Congress, and criminal prosecutors, seeking records — from any president.
Together, the final decisions represented a masterstroke of mutual interests that in these polarized times avoided a direct clash with Trump.
The cases encapsulated the tense conflict between the Roberts court, searching for principles that would endure for years, and Trump, making clear he views any ruling against him or his administration as a personal affront.
The President has often railed against Roberts and suggested by his own partisan-soaked remarks about the judiciary that he expects the court’s four Democratic-appointed justices to automatically rule against him and his two appointees to deliver for him. In the end, all of those justices voted against Trump in significant parts of the cases over his financial documents.
“Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?” Trump had tweeted in June when Roberts and the court’s four liberals narrowly rejected his administration’s plan to end a program shielding undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children from deportation.
In the Trump subpoena cases, the justices had a particular reason to sweat a narrow vote. In such moments involving presidential privileges, the Supreme Court had in the past set aside ideological and political differences and produced unanimous rulings.
In 1974, the court required President Richard Nixon to turn over Watergate tapes. In 1997, the court’s action led to President Bill Clinton’s testimony in Paula Jones’ sexual harassment civil lawsuit and, through separate US House proceedings, his eventual impeachment.
Roberts and his colleagues were clear-eyed about the fact that both cases were decided unanimously against each president. And they recognized that the judiciary in recent months had been in the crosshairs of partisans on both sides, sources told CNN.
As Trump and others in the GOP have blasted the court, liberal advocates have questioned its institutional integrity and have floated “court packing” proposals for ideological balance.
Further, the justices understood that the politics of the current document ordeal could be flipped in a matter of years, even months: A Democratic president could be trying to fight off a GOP-controlled House or state prosecutors.
The possibility of a third Supreme Court appointee was also in the air as the annual session was winding down. Some Trump supporters spoke openly about the prospect of an imminent resignation, speculating about conservatives Clarence Thomas, 72, or Samuel Alito, 70, leaving and perhaps enhancing Trump’s reelection bid.
Attention on the health of 87-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg suddenly was heightened, too, as a gallbladder condition and possible infection landed her in the hospital. Only some of her colleagues were aware at the time that she also had begun chemotherapy in May for liver cancer, sources told CNN. Ginsburg did not make the news public until July 17.
The US House lawsuits arose from attempts by Democratic-led committees to obtain financial records that members contended would help them write new ethics legislation. Subpoenas were directed at Trump’s accountants Mazars USA and two of his financial institutions, Deutsche Bank and Capital One.
Trump’s case against Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance stemmed from a New York grand jury’s investigation of whether Trump, before becoming President, directed “hush money” to women who claimed to have had affairs with him. (Trump has denied the affairs.)
The high court declared that a sitting president is not absolutely immune from criminal proceedings and can be subject to congressional subpoenas for his personal records. But the 7-2 majority left Trump with limited options to try to keep his documents secret in the New York case and devised a multi-factor test for a Congress seeking to subpoena a president.
In the short term, the practical effect appears to be that Trump has the ability to keep the files sealed until after the November election.
Politics in the air
The path to those compromise decisions was not straight and, even before oral arguments, began with a detour, as CNN first reported on Wednesday.
Prompted by a memo from Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the justices asked each side to address whether the case between Trump and House Democrats was too political for a court to resolve. It offered an alternative from hearing the case, but the strategy could also have crippled Congress’ investigative power and led, in the short term, to the release of the Trump financial documents.
Both sides told the justices that the court had the ability and responsibility to decide the subpoena dilemmas.
“Federal courts may not decline to resolve a controversy within their traditional competence and proper jurisdiction simply because, as is the situation here, the question is difficult, the consequences weighty, or the potential real for conflict with the policy preferences of the political branches,” wrote Will Consovoy, Trump’s lead lawyer, citing past court opinions.
Kavanaugh’s colleagues on the bench ultimately were not enticed by the idea either.
In a case that could have dramatic effects on the presidency in an election year, the court initially was stalled. Arguments had been scheduled for March, but because of the coronavirus pandemic they were put off until May 12 and held via telephone.
And no matter how much a court majority worked to break free of their views of Trump, some inclinations were heard in the three hours of teleconference arguments, broadcast live to the public.
Thomas characterized the third-party subpoenas in the House case as personal to Trump. The true intention, Thomas…