Why you should care
Because the coming clash will help define the legacies of both the president and the chief justice.
Susan Del Percio
Susan Del Percio is a New York–based Republican strategist.
President Donald Trump loves a show, and for him every show has a villain. Of course he will continue to lash out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats, but as impeachment moves from the House to a Senate trial, do not be surprised to see Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts become the next subject of Trump’s frustration and ire.
And the looming showdown will help define Roberts’ legacy as much as Trump’s.
The media and pundits continue to compare the forthcoming impeachment trial to that of Bill Clinton, but for Trump it is more of a prime-time reality TV show aired on every news outlet, six days a week. It’s no wonder that the president wants a long trial; he cannot resist the ratings.
Trump is nothing if not consistent, which is why when his back is against a wall he will lash out.
However, the impeachment trial will not be the show Trump wants. No one will be voted off the island, receive a rose or be fired. Unlike the display put on by House Republicans, members of the Senate will have to sit quietly. And, most importantly, the judge will actually be a real judge: the Supreme Court’s own Roberts.
Although this will likely be the highest-profile event of the justice’s career, there is no doubt Roberts will work diligently, seek as little attention as possible and do everything to avoid even a hint of partisanship.
He will detest the overt political nature of the Senate trial, but most of all he will seek to be an honest and fair arbiter. When testifying at his 2005 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Roberts told the Senate: “I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.”
But these are no ordinary times. We are more divided than ever as a country, and the president of the United States is constantly trying to tear down the pillars of our democracy. In stark contrast, since becoming chief justice, Roberts has done everything possible to protect the reputation of the court and shield it from politics.
The polar opposite can be said of Trump. He has shown zero respect for the office he holds, the legislature or the courts. This is why Trump will have no problem attacking Roberts for political purposes; after all, he has done it before. Here are a couple of examples of what Trump said about Roberts before he became president:
- “He looked like a dummy, because frankly his decision does not seem to be written by the supposedly smart man.”
- “I will tell you this: Justice Roberts really let us down.”
- “Justice Roberts turned out to be an absolute disaster; he turned out to be an absolute disaster because he gave us Obamacare.”
Roberts, in his more measured way, has fired back. Last year Trump called a federal judge an “Obama judge” because he didn’t like a ruling on immigration. Roberts responded: “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges.”
The president has also shown a willingness to insert himself into impeachment in real time. Recall when he went after diplomat Marie Yovanovitch while she was testifying in the House.
Expect it to happen again with Roberts when things appear to not be going Trump’s way. Trump is nothing if not consistent, which is why when his back is against a wall he will lash out.
To this point, Roberts’ career has been defined by rulings that advanced conservative aims (loosening limits on political spending in Citizens United v. FEC and tossing out the most aggressive parts of the Voting Rights Act), while also proving capable of surprise (refusing to strike down Obamacare in 2012). The most consistent theme: a desire to protect and defend the judiciary as an institution.
That will be tested in the coming weeks like never before, with Roberts’ independent streak going up against fiery partisans demanding the lifelong conservative to umpire the “witch hunt” as they see it. All eyes will be on the black-robed justice … and on the tweeter in chief.