On Friday, Dec. 22, the Supreme Court refused special counsel Jack Smith’s request to expedite consideration of Donald Trump’s claim of presidential immunity in the case charging him with election-obstruction crimes. Smith had asked the justices to quickly settle the question of whether a former president can be charged with a crime committed when he was in office.
As The Washington Post notes, the special counsel told the court that “the public interest required intervention now, to avoid delaying Trump’s D.C. federal trial.” Delaying that trial may mean that American voters will not know whether one of the two major-party presidential candidates committed a felony before they cast their ballots.
New evidence suggests that such information would play a decisive role in the 2024 presidential contest.
To understand the significance of what the Supreme Court just did in refusing to expedite the case, we need to look first at another news story that broke one day before the court announced its decision. That story revealed more about the lengths to which Trump went to reverse the results of the 2020 election.
It turns out that six weeks before the former president made his infamous phone call asking the Georgia secretary of State to find a sufficient number of votes for him to change the 2020 election result in that state, he was already practicing his dialing-for-votes pitch in another swing state. Last week we learned of the existence of a tape recording of a phone call that Trump made on Nov. 17, 2020, in which he pressured election officials not to certify vote totals in a key Michigan county.
According to news reports, the call included Trump and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel pressuring two Republican elections authorities, Monica Palmer and William Hartmann in Wayne County (which includes the city of Detroit), not to certify the election results in favor of Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Before Trump called them, Palmer and Hartman had voted not to certify the county’s election, but later changed their minds and went along with certification. That is when Trump intervened.
He told Palmer and Hartmann that they’d look “terrible” if they signed the documents that showed Biden had carried Wayne County. He claimed that he had been “cheated on this election” and insisted that “everybody knows Detroit is crooked as hell.”
McDaniel reinforced that message and said that if Palmer and Hartmann certified the election without forcing an audit of results, “the public would ‘never know what happened in Detroit.’”
Using language he would repeat on Jan. 6 when he urged his supporters to march on the Capitol, Trump told Palmer and Hartmann “to fight for our country.” Trump said, “We can’t let these people take our country away from us.”
McDaniel promised the women that if they went along with the president’s request not to sign the certification documents, “We will get you attorneys.” Trump added: “We’ll take care of that.”
When the call ended, as the Detroit News explains, the two women “left the canvassers meeting without signing the official statement of votes for Wayne County, and the following day, they unsuccessfully attempted to rescind their votes in favor of certification, filing legal affidavits claiming they were pressured.”
Had the moves by Palmer, Hartmann and Trump, been successful, as the News says, they would have thrown “the statewide certification of Michigan’s 2020 election into doubt.”
Media outlets across the country trumpeted this latest evidence of Trump’s election interference. They quoted Jonathan Kinloch, who was a Democratic member of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, in November 2020. “It’s just shocking,” Kinloch said, “that the president of the United States was at the most minute level trying to stop the election process from happening.”
But, as shocking as it is, news about the phone call likely won’t do much to change the political dynamic in the 2024 presidential campaign. An article published last week in the Boston Globe helps explain why this is the case.
It reports on interviews with Trump supporters in Iowa and begins as follows: “Joannie Firkins, 63, does not trust the COVID vaccine. She does not trust the Internal Revenue Service. She does not trust the results of the 2020 election and she certainly does not trust President Biden. The one entity the Iowa City hair salon owner does trust, however, is former president Donald Trump. ‘I believe Trump is appointed by God …He’s the only one that’s speaking the truth.’”
“For many of these voters,” the Globe notes “devotion to the former president is tightly bound with a deep distrust of the government, of basic institutions, and of his opponents. It is a distrust that he himself has intentionally stoked from the stump over the past eight years.”
As the BBC puts it, Trump has forged an almost mystical connection with his supporters. Their connection is quasi-religious. “They see the world through his eyes.” They accept him for who he is, warts and all.
Things like the news out of Michigan may provide fodder for MSNBC News hosts, but they do little to change the hearts and minds of his supporters. However, a criminal conviction could be a different story.
A New York Times/Siena College poll released on Dec. 19 shows that while Trump now holds a narrow lead over President Biden, if he were convicted in the election interference case brought by Jack Smith, almost one-quarter of Trump’s current supporters would not want the Republican Party to nominate him for president.
Moreover, a poll conducted last August found that 45 percent of Republicans would not vote for Trump if he were convicted of a felony by a jury. A large number of Trump’s current supporters would even want him to “go to prison” if he is convicted of plotting to overturn the 2020 election.
Donald Trump knows this.
That is why he is doing everything he can to postpone or derail the trial scheduled to start on March 4 in Washington, D.C. That is why the Supreme Court’s refusal to expedite consideration of Trump’s immunity claim is so significant.
Smith is right about the public interest in getting on with the legal proceedings that will determine if Trump is a criminal. If jurors find him guilty, after hearing all the evidence in a fair trial, it could make a difference.
The sound of the jury foreman saying out loud that Donald Trump committed a crime in the aftermath of the 2020 election might just break the emotional bond between the 2024 frontrunner and his followers and get them to consider rationally whether they want him to assume the presidency again. Sadly, the Supreme Court has delayed the day when that might happen.
Austin Sarat (@ljstprof) is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Amherst College.