Trump just had the luckiest day imaginable – but what does it mean for his campaign?

Any resistance to the former president is now well and truly gone, writes Jon Sopel. The only thing that can stop him now is the ballot box...

Saturday 02 March 2024 12:39 GMT
On Wednesday in Washington, Donald Trump had the best day of his life
On Wednesday in Washington, Donald Trump had the best day of his life (AP)

There is a phrase I suspect every parent has used when trying to talk a child down from some overblown high, or to pick them up from a catastrophised low: things are never as good as they seem – nor are they as bad.

But on Wednesday in Washington, Donald Trump had a day every bit as good as it seemed. It was marvellous, unalloyed joy. And it came in two shapes – and within a couple of hundred yards of each other geographically.

The first was from the Supreme Court. The nine justices decided after much deliberation that they would rule on whether Donald Trump does or does not have immunity from prosecution following the attempted insurrection of 6 January 2021, and the role he played in it. Did he, as the special counsel Jack Smith has charged him with, conspire to defraud the United States by obstructing the electoral process? Can he be tried for it?

It sounds perfectly normal and appropriate that this is something the court should rule on. But if you peel back the layers, things are not quite what they seem. For a start, they have been slow to agree to take on the case.

Second, they have said they will not consider this until late April, which means the earliest you are going to get a judgement is the middle of June, and that means the earliest a trial would be able to start would be late September. And given the complexity of the charges, the length of time it takes to get a jury sworn in, and the pre-trial arguments you would be pushing it to get a verdict by the end of the year. The whole process could take even longer, even if everything goes like clockwork.

In other words, the court – which has a six-to-three conservative majority, with three of the justices having been appointed by Trump himself – has slowed the process to such an extent that there will be no outcome of a trial (if indeed there is any trial) before the presidential election.

And that has been the exact strategy of the Trump legal team: delay, throw obstacles in the way, argue, play for time, raise whatever spurious point you can to throw sand in the gears.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the six conservative members of the Supreme Court of the United States sat down with a calendar in front of them to figure out how they could best help Trump the most without compromising themselves. But if that is what they had wanted to do, that is the exact timetable they would have come up with. Needless to say, some – much more cynical than myself – have advanced that theory.

Just one more thing: there was no need for the justices to take the case at all. The appeals court ruling saying Trump didn’t have immunity was so emphatic and their judgement so overwhelming the Supreme Court could have just passed on it and said the matter had been settled by the lower court.

As this decision was dropping, just across the road on First Street SE, in the Senate chamber, the long-standing Republican leader and Machiavellian, Mitch McConnell was making a consequential announcement: the 82-year-old was hanging up his hobnail boots. Trump and he loathe each other – because he wouldn’t always do what Trump wanted.

Just after the Brexit vote in June 2016, I accompanied Trump on one of his maddest trips ever. He flew to Scotland to visit his golf courses there. At the links just outside Aberdeen, which is carved into the dunes, Trump owns all the property around. Except for one house, which the owner refused to sell to him. He was like a character from the film Local Hero. Trump absolutely hated him. And in fairness, the antipathy was returned. This Scottish curmudgeon even flew the Mexican flag the day Trump came – an amusing provocation.

To some extent McConnell was the holdout character in the US Senate – though much more significant and powerful. That Trump managed to get three justices appointed in his four-year term was down to McConnell’s brilliance as a political tactician. That Obama failed to get his pick for a vacancy following the death of Antonin Scalia was again down to McConnell.

So you might think Trump would love him. But Mitch McConnell was always his own man. And although only a few years older than Trump, he seemed to belong to a different political generation.

Born in February 1942, just a couple of months after the catastrophe of Pearl Harbour, and entering the Senate four years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, McConnell was a man believing in small government at home and American strength overseas. Trump’s Putin infatuation was a mystery to him.

January 6, though, was when the breach became permanent. McConnell was scathing. But for all his fiery rhetoric, he delayed the trial of Donald Trump in the Senate after his second impeachment – and that allowed McConnell to pass the buck; to argue they couldn’t vote to convict as Trump had already left office – and it would have to be for the courts at some future date to decide his fate.

Who says history doesn’t repeat itself? It will be an interesting question that will be debated for some time about whether McConnell was a Trump blocker or Trump enabler. That’s a whole other debate.

But whoever replaces him, it will be someone much more sympathetic to Trump. And that would mean the Maga takeover is complete. The House speaker, Mike Johnson, is there because of Trump’s patronage. The chair of the Republican National Committee is on her way out, and his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, may be on her way in to replace her.

Any resistance to him has gone. All the power blocks are under his control. And I wouldn’t say he has the Supreme Court in his pocket, but…

Jon Sopel is the former BBC North America editor and now presents Global’s ‘The News Agents’ podcast

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