Jurisprudence

The Supreme Court Is As Complicit As the Senate

Trump’s abuses of office have been blessed by every branch of government.

Elena Kagan stares at Donald Trump and John Roberts.
President Donald Trump talks with Chief Justice John Roberts as Associate Justice Elena Kagan looks on before the State of the Union address in the House chamber on Feb. 4.
Photo by Leah Millis-Pool/Getty Images

Last Tuesday, in explaining her vote to acquit Donald Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, Sen. Susan Collins suggested that the president had learned a “pretty big lesson” simply from being impeached and that he would be “much more cautious” about engaging in similar behavior again. By Friday, Trump had issued a series of firings of public officials who had testified against the president during the impeachment inquiry, demonstrating his takeaway from impeachment: He can use the powers of his office to do whatever he wants. Having gotten away with abuses of power again and again, Trump is now unleashed to continue to corruptly use the powers of his office without consequence. He has already begun to show what that will look like over the remainder of his presidency.

In legal escapades outside of the realm of impeachment, for instance, Trump and his administration have internalized the lesson that if no one will stop you, there’s no reason to stop. Less than two years ago, the Supreme Court upheld the third iteration of the president’s ban on entry by nationals of several Muslim-majority countries (the “travel ban”). By upholding the ban, the court made clear that it would not stop the president from incorporating his bigotry into official immigration policy. Since then, the president has dramatically expanded the scope of the travel ban to other countries with substantial Muslim populations and has enacted several other immigration restrictions that disproportionately disadvantage nonwhite immigrants. After receiving a pass on xenophobia, the president has continued to do it again and again. Last week, he expanded the entry ban to cover five additional countries (Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, Eritrea, and Myanmar) with substantial Muslim populations. In one of those countries (Myanmar), a group of Muslims (the Rohingya) are fleeing religious persecution and genocide. The president had previously said, according to the New York Times, that Nigerians should “go back to their huts.”

With respect to impeachment, several senators came close to admitting that their impeachment votes signify that they are unwilling to stop the president from abusing his office. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee explained his vote against calling witnesses in almost exactly those terms. The senator claimed that there was no point in hearing from additional witnesses because he had already concluded that the president engaged in the conduct he was accused of. (The House has maintained that the president corruptly threatened to withhold financial assistance to Ukraine to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden.) The senator explained that, in his final analysis, the president’s conduct mattered less than the Senate’s ability to continue to confirm more conservative judges and the risk that a Democrat would win the presidency.

That reasoning obviously invites the president to do the same thing—or worse—again and he wasted no time in retaliating against impeachment witnesses Lt. Col. Alex Vindman and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. If Republicans senators and their constituents value conservative judges and tax breaks for the wealthy more than holding a president accountable for wrongdoing, then the president will just keep doing wrong.

Again, it is not just the Senate that has failed to curb the president’s worst impulses and told the president that he can get away with even more than he’s already done. As a candidate, Trump had promised to ban Muslims from entering the United States. After his election, the president immediately suspended entry from several Muslim-majority countries without so much as informing, much less consulting, any relevant agencies. And his advisers admitted that the travel ban was an effort to make a Muslim ban that looked (somewhat) more legal. The Supreme Court ultimately blessed that effort in 2018 under a 5–4 vote that split along ideological lines.

The five conservative justices, much like the Republican senators, said they didn’t care. In fact, the justices, like the Republican senators, acknowledged that the entry ban may very well have been motivated by anti-Muslim animus. But they claimed that, in light of the president’s expansive powers over immigration, the court would uphold the entry ban so long as someone could think that the ban had a valid purpose (such as protecting national security) even if the ban actually had an illegitimate one (such as targeting Muslims). And, the court continued, a person could think the president’s entry ban had a valid purpose because the ban did not apply to all of the world’s Muslims, among other reasons.

Again, it does not take a genius to see how that decision signals that the court is unwilling to stop the president from making policy based on bigoted, thinly veiled Islamophobia or racism. The president received the message and has run with it. His expanded travel ban clearly targets countries based on race and religion. The odds of this Supreme Court reversing course and stopping him this time is virtually nil.

Indeed, the administration apparently felt so emboldened by the court’s earlier ruling that its expanded entry ban largely abandoned the original pretense of the rationale for the earlier entry ban. Previously, the administration stated it was responding to information sharing deficiencies in some countries. The administration now suggests it is trying to restrict immigration: Officials stated they are suspending entry from Nigeria because some Nigerians overstay their visas.

The administration has created other immigration restrictions that likewise disadvantage nonwhite immigrants. They have refused to process asylum applications from Central American migrants who did not apply for asylum in other countries they passed through on their way to the United States. They have tried to prohibit asylum applications from people who enter the United States outside of ports of entry. And they have authorized immigration officials to refuse to admit immigrants who might ever use public benefits (even temporarily). The Supreme Court approved this last effort just two weeks ago, again through a 5–4 decision split along ideological lines.

With the Senate’s blessing, the president will continue to corruptly abuse the powers of his office to undermine elections and our rule of law—and, as demonstrated by the Friday Night Massacre, he will do so in even more aggressive and ostentatious ways. With the court’s blessing, the president will expand his racist, xenophobic, and anti-Muslim immigration practices with little limit to what he may try to enact.

Neither the Senate nor the Supreme Court has been willing to stand up to the president for abusing the powers of his office for personal benefit or to stoke bigotry for partisan ends. By failing to do so, they have encouraged Trump to abuse his powers even more. It is unclear what, if anything, can stop him now.