ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
As President Trump draws battle lines and culture wars and on the pandemic and racial justice, the highest court in the land issued several decisions in recent weeks that have added fuel to the president’s fire. This week the Supreme Court ruled on two cases concerning subpoenas for the president’s financial records. In both, the Court denied President Trump’s argument that the president is immune but sent the cases back to lower courts. Here is what the president said on Thursday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Well, the rulings were basically starting all over again, sending everything back down to the lower court. From a certain point I’m satisfied; from another point I’m not satisfied because, frankly, this is a political witch hunt.
MR. COSTA: Arms crossed and a witch hunt, according to the president.
With us tonight to discuss this and more: Joan Biskupic, legal analyst for CNN and the author of The Chief: The Life and Times of Chief Justice John Roberts and many other books; and Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. Yamiche, welcome back. Joan, great to have you here. Really appreciate it.
JOAN BISKUPIC: Thanks, Robert.
MR. COSTA: Joan, I love your work over the years, not only your reporting on CNN but all of your books on the different justices. When you step back this week as a real pro on the Court beat, what do you make of it all in terms of where this Court is in terms of its independence and its leanings?
MS. BISKUPIC: Thanks, Robert. You know, first of all, it’s hard to imagine a more consequential term at a more consequential time in America, and Chief Justice Roberts really navigated a fine line here. As you know, he’s been chief for 15 years, but it’s been only in the last two years that he has been in control with the retirement of Anthony Kennedy, who was the critical centrist-conservative vote. And when he left the Court, John Roberts was not only the jurist in the center chair, he was at the center ideologically, and he has navigated a really important term. You mentioned these cases that involved Donald Trump where, you’re right, the Court asserts its independence, but look at what he did – he brought together someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has talked publicly about Donald Trump not releasing his tax returns from one side, and then also Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s two appointees. So I think it was a real masterstroke by John Roberts this week. He doesn’t always has the easiest relations with his colleagues, but I think he really pulled off something this time around with those rulings, and then also the way he walked a particular line in terms of when he joined with liberal justices on abortion rights, and with the gay and transgender right decision, and the ruling that rejected the Trump administration’s hasty phaseout of the Obama-era program that protects young undocumented immigrants; but yet, we saw him still flexing his conservative muscle in many ways on religion cases, on voting rights, on the power of the executive against independent agencies. So you have – you have to look at the term in a broad way, but I cannot stress enough, Robert, about this really important moment for the Roberts Court in America right now.
MR. COSTA: Yamiche, inside the White House, how are they responding to this turn by Chief Justice Roberts? Are they planning to run against Roberts to rally conservatives this fall? What’s the plan?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, President Trump is going to – has said he’s going to do what he did in 2016, which is release a list of Supreme Court nominees that he would consider and say it’s going to be someone from this list. That’s a way to try to shore up the Evangelical – White Evangelical base of voters who he – who may be somewhat skeptical of him or maybe somewhat cautious of him because of all the scandals and controversies. But he has been a president that has really seen success when it comes to judicial nominees and judicial appointments. He has – he has really changed the face of federal nominees and the federal judicial system in a lot of ways. He’s had something like 150 or more federal nominations and – successful federal nominations and appointments to the federal bar there. But when it comes to the Supreme Court and what’s going on there, the president, you saw him really be angry at the fact that he felt like the Supreme Court was allowing a, quote, “witch hunt” or a hoax to continue, and that is of course the state prosecutors trying to go after his financial records. The other thing, though, that you saw was the White House also spinning these two decisions and saying both of these were wins for the White House. So apart from President Trump kind of really being angry about some of these decisions, you had the White House press secretary come out and say, well, both of these decisions, they return these cases back to the lower courts, and as a result that makes it better for us. And as Paula noted during the broadcast, what we do know is even though the financial records of Donald Trump may one day get in front of a grand jury, that doesn’t mean that it’s any way going to be in the public domain, and definitely not going to be in the public domain, it seems, before the November election, which is really a critical time for the president.
MR. COSTA: Joan, let’s pause on that financial-records question. For the laypeople out there, the non-lawyers like myself – I didn’t go to law school; both my parents did; I think they sometimes still wish I did go to law school – but why is Cyrus Vance in Manhattan allowed to see the tax returns but Congress is not?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, he’s trying to obtain them as part of a secret grand jury proceeding here. So the idea is that, first of all, he’s given good reason to have them as part of the investigation, that they need them to figure out some of the potential financial irregularities. And if they end up being turned over to the grand jury, which I think in that case, that’s the most likely scenario, they’re supposed to remain secret. And Chief Justice John Roberts actually noted in his opinion certain secrecy rules that go with the grand jury.
Now, Congress is saying that it needs documents of President Trump from his long-time accountants and banks which, I should – I should mention for our viewers – do not include the tax returns. The tax returns are specifically at issue in the New York case, but some tax material could come in the congressional investigations, but not as directly as in New York right now. It’s, as I said, a range of other material from Trump’s long-time accountants and banks.
But in that case what the court said was that Congress actually had not quite justified its grounds for the subpoenas from the various committees. And said, first of all, yes, Congress does have the power to subpoena these kinds of personal records, rejecting Trump’s categorial assertion that no Congress doesn’t even have that power. The Supreme Court said that Congress does have that power, but there’s a certain set of hurdles it has to cross. It has to show that it really needs this material for the kind of legislative pursuits it has. And then it also has to look at the separation of powers questions here about what the burdens could be on the president.
MR. COSTA: Joan, I was joking about it during the broadcast, that the only thing we needed on a Friday night in addition to a pardon – or, commutation, excuse me – of Roger Stone would be a Supreme Court vacancy. What does your reporting tell you about whether Justice Thomas, or Justice Alito, or anyone else may step down this weekend and choose to retire?
MS. BISKUPIC: You know, when I heard you say that, Bob, I have to say that, you know, that just sends shivers up my spine again. But it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen anytime soon, that I know of. You know, we’ve been surprised before, but I think we can reassure your viewers that Justice Clarence Thomas, who’s just 72, and Justice Samuel Alito, who’s just 70, those are very young years for Supreme Court justices, are staying put for the time being.
MR. COSTA: And so, Yamiche, inside the White House is there frustration that they’re not going to have a nominee to galvanize conservatives this summer and fall?
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, the president’s been pretty clear that he would love to have another Supreme Court nominee, if he can get it. The thing is, though, that I think what the president learned this week is that just because he has a big bang, he may not get the bang that he’s putting forward with his buck. And that is, that just because he nominates someone to Supreme Court doesn’t mean that he’s going to have shoo-in, and that that justice is going to vote the way that he hopes that they vote.
Case in point, you had two of his nominees in Gorsuch and in Kavanagh vote to say that the president is not, in fact, absolutely immune from all sorts of prosecutions, which is, of course, what President Trump had said over and over again, that presidents were absolutely immune. Essentially what a judge had said was that the president is not a king. And you heard that basically echoed in the Supreme Court this week. So I think the president’s also learning that even if he gets more Supreme Court justices, that doesn’t mean that he can maybe skirt the law and that that they’re going to take his side because he put them on the bench.
So I think that there’s a learning curve there on that note. But I also think that the president wants to be able to have more of a legacy. As much as he touts all the things that he feels like he’s gotten done in office, the thing that he consistently goes back to is the judicial nominees, is the judicial appointments. He feels very, very good about that. Mitch McConnell, of course – even though that’s not the Supreme Court – Mitch McConnell continues to also talk about the fact that they are having a record number of federal appointments to the federal bench.
And I think conservatives when you talk to them – when I talk to voters who are maybe really shaky about the president’s maybe even handling of the coronavirus or his escapade, or all sorts of other things that he’s done, even his language and his use of racist terms, they go back to the fact, well, I’m a conservative and I believe in a conservative court. And as a result, at least voting for President Trump, I get that. So I think it’s also going to continue to be a draw to voters who want to look at the president through that lens.
MR. COSTA: And finally, Joan, you’ve literally written the book on Chief Justice Roberts. There were reports this week that he fell last month at the Chevy Chase Club, was hospitalized. Any update on how the chief justice is doing and his state of health?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, the court officials say that he’s doing just fine. He’ll probably be vacationing up at his place in Maine pretty soon. That was an amazing incident, because they didn’t – the court did not release information on it. It was The Washington Post, as you know, that had gotten a tip and ran it down. It was an incident that happened June 21st. So they were quite secretive. They say that it was just a fall that happened from some dehydration when he was walking on a Sunday afternoon. But he – all reports are that he is healthy. He’s only 65 years old. But you know, we don’t take anything for granted with any of these appointees.
MR. COSTA: Thank you very much, Joan. Really appreciate your time. Yamiche, thanks for all of your time and your reporting. Really appreciate it.
And that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our website. While you’re there, I hope you sign up for the newsletter, the Washington Week newsletter, where you’ll get an advanced look at our show each week, and a note from me. We’re building that up ahead of the conventions and the campaign. Sign up and we’ll make sure you’re in the loop with Washington Week.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.