Trump Is Losing His War Against the Courts

The judiciary has continued to quietly deliver subtle, devastating blows to the president’s agenda.

An illustration of Donald Trump looking dejected in front of a courthouse.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Claire Anderson on Unsplash and Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

We have just witnessed what can now—after the accounting of several races that went uncalled on election night—be described as an all-out shellacking for Trump and Trumpism. The people who knocked on doors and texted voters and drove people to the polls leading up to the midterms may be wondering what’s to be done between now and the 2020 election. The answer is simple: protect the courts.

This doesn’t just mean fighting for the integrity, scope, and independence of the Robert Mueller investigation, which is now under existential threat from a president who openly wants his new acting attorney general to blow the thing up altogether. As we wait for Mueller’s next move, it’s tempting to assume that whatever he may have is already enough to place the president in immediate and serious legal jeopardy. Maybe. In many ways even that result will depend on a robust and independent judicial branch—something this president has been tearing down since the 2016 campaign.

Between the impending conclusion of the Mueller probe and the promise of oversight from various Democratic-controlled House committees come January, it’s clear that the president is starting to panic. And it’s easy to see why—given his tax returns, financial dealings, Russian investments, and other wrongdoing being surfaced in litigation, he has a good deal to worry about.

But that brings us once more to the greatest and least appreciated place at which President Donald Trump is proving to be the losing-est loser of all: the courts. Because they happen so frequently, it’s almost impossible to keep track of all the massive and consequential rulings against this president and his administration that are logged every week and rarely viewed in the aggregate. But let’s try: Late Monday night, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the president’s Nov. 9 rule that barred migrants from applying for asylum unless they made the request at a legal checkpoint. The judge’s order applies nationally. Last Friday’s decision—by a Trump-appointed judge—to side with CNN against the White House in a dispute about revoked press credentials is only the most recent iteration of a near-constant drip-drip of legal losses. Even with a bench now containing almost 1 in 6 Trump appointed judges (and these are not your President Bush–edition conservative judges), Trump mainly loses, and then loses some more.

Here’s another set: On Nov. 9, a federal judge in Montana temporarily blocked construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, ruling that the Trump administration had failed to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires “reasoned” explanations for government decisions and reversals. (The president immediately decried the ruling as “political” and “a disgrace.”) Indeed, this is just the most recent in a line of environmental cases Trump keeps losing in the federal courts. One recent tally shows the Trump administration has actually lost in all but one of the legal challenges it’s brought in its efforts to undo Obama-era regulations. The government has either lost or ditched its position in 18 others. As a recent Brookings roundup notes, this 5 percent “win rate is far below the normal agency win rate, which averages 69 percent across eleven studies.”

But there’s so much more. Also in November, a federal judge allowed the massive emoluments lawsuit filed against Trump in Maryland and D.C. to proceed over the Justice Department’s objections. In August, a federal judge struck down the bulk of three separate executive orders seeking to hobble unions that Trump had signed in an attempt to make it easier to fire federal employees. While we were all looking for solace to the great media blackout that is the Mueller investigation, federal courts halted the Trump effort to ban transgender members of the military, stopped the effort to kill DACA, assisted in terminating the president’s circus-level vote fraud commission, and stymied efforts to defund sanctuary cities. In August, a Trump-appointed judge batted away a challenge to Robert Mueller’s appointment. Courts have acted swiftly and decisively to end Trump’s irresponsible and cruel immigration policies. In many of these cases there are three and four separate losses logged in different courts. As Fred Barbash noted a few weeks ago in the Washington Post, “by a very rough count, 40 to 50 federal judges have weighed in against the Trump administration in cases.”

This is not, as Barbash observes, because these are all a bunch of demented “judicial activists,” as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions once attempted to argue. Nor are they the “judges of the Resistance”—a phrase that obscures more than it illuminates. A good many of these jurists were appointed by Republican presidents and in some cases Trump himself. No, the Trump administration is still managing to lose a tremendous amount of its lawsuits despite the fact that the judicial branch has changed dramatically in the past two years and the Supreme Court itself now tilts to the political right.

As Barbash further clarifies, Trump loses so much at least partially because his administration must often contort itself into absurd postures to justify policies enacted by random tweet (as was the trans ban) or by vengeful tantrum (as was the sanctuary cities policy) or without proper procedures (the asylum changes). When agencies make abrupt and ill-considered policy changes, then send lawyers into courts to defend them, even the most conservative judge is apt to be frustrated. Trump also loses whenever courts take his tweeting or offhand comments into account, because they often undermine or even contradict stated legal arguments. As we saw last week in the CNN litigation, Trump loses when pretextual claims about Jim Acosta assaulting a White House intern are exposed as the pretextual—that means false—claims they are. Judges tend to find all this less amusing than you might think.

Regardless of inclination or ideology, most judges still prefer facts to alternative facts, and reasoned discourse to free-flowing policy by hissy fit. And regardless of inclination or ideology, most judges still don’t like lies or liars. And regardless of inclination or ideology, most judges favor sobriety, stability, and the integrity of the judicial branch to nihilist attacks on everyone and everything that is fact-based. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that judges are as totally exhausted by the lurches and feints of the first Honey Boo Boo presidency as the rest of us.

Is everything perfect? No. As long as Mitch McConnell draws breath, more and more unsuitable Trump judges will be mashed through the Senate and confirmed, regardless of qualifications. And the Supreme Court, we must recall, ended up reversing the lower court rulings on the travel ban, deciding it was in no position to question the president’s integrity or motivations. The Supreme Court could stymie many of the important legal reversals noted above as well, but it’s worth remembering that it only hears about 70 cases a year. It doesn’t want to be in the business of rubber-stamping every crazy idea Trump bleats out, not if it cares about its own public approval and that of all the courts below. Even the Supreme Court, even this Supreme Court, doesn’t want to go all in on all of it. And the losses are adding up.

It’s easy to miss the way this administration is getting trounced in the courts in part because it happens so often that we are almost inured to it, or because the courts are in fact behaving as they have largely done: as a quiet, meticulous check on that which is persistently unlawful and overreaching. It would be more newsworthy if courts behaved like rubber stamps every time the administration produced another ill-conceived rule change. David Cole, the national legal director of the ACLU, who wrote about this last year, puts it this way in an email:

The courts have ruled against the Trump administration consistently and appropriately. They have ruled against the administration on family separation, the revocation of DACA, punishing sanctuary cities, arbitrarily detaining asylum-seekers, barring young women in federal custody from obtaining abortion, expelling Jim Acosta from the White House press briefing, holding a US citizen as an enemy combatant without chargers or access to a lawyer, and banning transgender individuals from the military. We told Donald Trump we’ll see you in court, and we have, and for the most part, the courts have stood up for the rule of law against an administration that seems not to understand what it means.

To be sure, there is still a great deal to be worried about. Competent partisan hack Jeff Sessions is soon to be replaced by less competent partisan hack Matt Whitaker. If Whitaker—whose appointment as acting attorney general may not be legal—opts to deploy the DOJ’s astonishing power to do harm to civil liberties and basic freedoms, a lot of damage can be done in the coming months. That appointment is itself now subject to multiple legal challenges, which means that the man tasked with defending the Trump administration against the raft of legal challenges is himself the subject of a raft of legal challenges.

People who knocked on doors last month to protect democracy could continue that same work by expressing their support for Mueller and demanding a qualified attorney general. And the same reasoning can apply to the need to stand up for the judicial branch every time the president threatens, dismisses, or insults a judge or ruling. It’s also worth keeping in mind that all of these institutions depend on public support, and few of them punch back when the president attacks them. We need to support an independent judiciary for all the same reasons we have often failed to notice how effectively it has held Trumpism at bay. Because, despite being smacked around like a tetherball for two years, the courts have, to a large degree, acted soberly and with restraint. That’s not because judges have all, en masse, joined the “Resistance.” It’s because we still have a judiciary that resists that which is apparently still unlawful.