Donald Trump had a bad day in court on Tuesday, or more accurately, in court.
The former president suffered a stunning Supreme Court defeat over his long-running campaign to hide his tax returns, which are now due before a Democratic House committee. Meanwhile, Republican-appointed appeals court judges seemed cool with their latest attempt to put the brakes on the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case. A New York judge set an October 2023 trial date for the state’s $250 million fraud case against Trump, three of his sons and his organization, which will fall just before the season of Republican presidential primaries. And as the hangover lingers from his false claims of fraud in 2020, Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham testified before a Georgia grand jury investigating the former president’s alleged bid to steal the election.
Given Trump’s huge 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 the same day in concurrent cases.
But Tuesday’s events marked the first time the legal chaos and danger surrounding him has come to light since he declared his third bid for the Republican presidential nomination last week. It’s the first test of whether the courtroom danger he faces on multiple fronts will hurt his ability to mount a credible campaign and discourage Republican primary voters who might consider an alternative candidate.
Several developments on Tuesday, including the documents case and the reality that Trump’s tax returns will soon go into Democratic hands weeks before Republicans take control of the House, suggest that two of Trump’s consistent legal strategies may be starting to falter . The first is his claim that he, as a former president, deserves different treatment under the law than other American citizens. The second is that your delay, delay, delay approach may be reaching the limits of its usefulness. Still, the former president has long managed to keep scandals that could have brought down other politicians at bay. And he is sure to use new twists in the cases to reinforce the persecution narrative that is central to his new campaign for the White House.
But outgoing Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is also considering a 2024 Republican presidential primary campaign, told CNN on Tuesday that new evidence of turmoil surrounding Trump could be a turnoff for GOP voters.
“It’s dizzying for the public to see this kind of chaos around a presidential candidate,” Hutchinson told CNN’s Brianna Keilar. “To me, it’s very problematic and just 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 break the rules. So the Supreme Court’s decision not to block the Internal Revenue Service from turning over its tax documents to the House Ways and Means Committee represented a significant personal, as well as political, defeat.
The committee’s Democratic leadership says it wants the testimony to decide whether there’s a case to change tax laws for sitting presidents. The possibility of conflicts of interest or hidden obligations owed by presidents or missed or insufficient payments in these statements could be problematic given a chief executive’s power to set fiscal policy. A lower court had previously found that the committee had a legitimate legislative purpose for looking at the returns. But with just a few weeks before Republicans take over the House, it’s unclear how much time Democrats would have to examine the returns or possibly make changes to the law.
Nor is it certain that the public will be able to see the returns that Trump has long sought to protect. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat who serves on the committee, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Tuesday that the documents were subject to privacy protections. But he also said the panel had the option of releasing the documents publicly and that “the time pressure here creates an additional reason to consider doing so.”
On the merits of the case, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the Supreme Court had upheld a vital rule. “The principle of supervision has been maintained since the Magna Carta, and it is no different today. This is above politics, and the committee will now provide the oversight we have sought for the past three and a half years.”
But the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, warned that by standing aside, the court set a precedent that would mean no citizen could be excluded from a majority political party.
“By effectively granting the majority party in either house of Congress nearly unlimited power to target and release the tax returns of political enemies (political figures, private citizens, or even Supreme Court justices), they are opening a dangerous new political battlefield where no citizen is safe,” Brady said in a statement.
An interesting wrinkle will be whether Trump’s loss in the tax return fight will influence how future Republican presidential candidates handle their financial records. By releasing them, they could not only restore a modern tradition of transparency for presidents. They could potentially flank Trump.
Trump’s other big disappointment came in the Mar-a-Lago documents matter, with key protections the former president secured from a Florida lower court judge now in jeopardy. The DOJ is investigating the former president for possible obstruction of justice, criminal handling of government records and violations of the Espionage Act, which prohibits the unauthorized storage of national defense information.
A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals expressed skepticism about Trump’s arguments about why he had the right to have a third party, known as a special master, review some 22,000 pages of extorted materials 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 down countless routine legal cases involving other Americans if widely adopted.
In remarks widely noted by legal analysts, the head of the appeals court, Judge William Pryor, cast doubt on Trump’s arguments.
“We have to be concerned about the precedent that we would create that would allow any felony target of a federal criminal investigation to go to a district court and for a district court to hear that kind of petition, exercise equitable jurisdiction (that allows a court to step in) and interfere with the ongoing investigation of the executive branch,” Pryor told Trump attorney James Trusty.
“Other than the fact that this involves a former president, everything else about this … is indistinguishable,” Pryor told Trusty during arguments.
Another judge, Britt Grant, chided Trusty for calling the FBI’s search of 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 “loaded term”.
Ryan Goodman, a former special counsel at the Department of Defense, told CNN’s Burnett that the court could decide to overrule Judge Aileen Cannon, who appointed the special master, in what would be a blow to the former president .
“They would basically say, first of all, you should never have exercised jurisdiction, Judge Cannon, you didn’t,” Goodman said.
Any such move could significantly speed up the documents case after Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to oversee it last week.
It could also offer the prospect of clarity to the public, which must now assess another unprecedented political scenario involving Trump. The former president’s multiple legal challenges have stalled both cases, but on Tuesday he offered signs that each may be closer to resolution.