Today, President Trump tweeted a bewildered question about the latest Supreme Court decision against him: “Do you get the impression the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?”
Thousands of people on Twitter promptly tweeted back, “It’s not about you!” Yet the president’s self-involved question touched on a truth. The Supreme Court’s decision in the latest immigration case did reveal something about the Court’s evolving attitude toward the Trump presidency: not personal dislike, obviously, but rising institutional distrust.
Almost exactly two years ago, Trump won his travel-ban case at the Supreme Court. The plaintiffs challenging the ban raised a number of arguments, but their most important argument was this: Yes, the president has broad authority over immigration. But this president is abusing that authority for bigoted purposes, as attested by literally dozens of statements during the 2016 presidential campaign and after.
Writing for a 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts replied, in effect: Not going to go there. “Plaintiffs’ request for a searching inquiry into the persuasiveness of the President’s justifications is inconsistent with the broad statutory text,” he wrote toward the top of the majority opinion. Roberts elaborated later in the text:
Plaintiffs argue that this President’s words strike at fundamental standards of respect and tolerance, in violation of our constitutional tradition. But the issue before us is not whether to denounce the statements. It is instead the significance of those statements in reviewing a Presidential directive, neutral on its face, addressing a matter within the core of executive responsibility.
Roberts then cited and quoted a 1976 precedent in which the Court “limited our review to whether the Executive gave a 'facially legitimate and bona fide' reason for its action … Given the authority of the political branches over admission, we held that ‘when the Executive exercises this [delegated] power negatively on the basis of a facially legitimate and bona fide reason, the courts will neither look behind the exercise of that discretion, nor test it by balancing its justification’ against the asserted constitutional interests.”