Trump relishes a winning streak on the debate stage and in the courts

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

Washington CNN  — 

Donald Trump used to tell his fans that he’d win so much, they’d get tired of winning.

This week, that might be true for once.

President Joe Biden’s incoherent and painful debate performance in Atlanta on Thursday night gave Trump a massive victory in the most pivotal moment of the 2024 White House campaign so far as he seeks to win a non-consecutive second term and pull off a stunning political comeback.

Trump basked in the aftermath of the debate during a rally on Friday in Virginia and drew a link between what he said was the “decline” of both his opponent and America.

“As every American saw firsthand last night, this election is a choice between strength and weakness, competence and incompetence, peace and prosperity, war or no war,” Trump said.

Hours after the debate, a US Supreme Court ruling that the Justice Department overstepped in charging January 6 Capitol rioters handed the presumptive Republican nominee what he immediately hailed on social media as a “BIG WIN.” The 6-3 decision was a symbolic victory for the ex-president the day after he used the debate to try to whitewash the worst attack on democracy in modern times.

There could also be legal ramifications with some scholars arguing the ruling could narrow the scope of Trump’s federal election interference trial, even if special counsel Jack Smith believes his case can proceed unaffected. The ex-president’s lawyers are already signaling they will seek to get evidence tossed and obstruction counts against the ex-president dismissed.

The court released its decision ahead of an even more critical case that will bear more directly on Trump’s criminal entanglements. On Monday, justices are expected to finally rule on his expansive claim of immunity for acts committed while president. If the long-awaited ruling by the conservative-majority court mandates new litigation in a lower court, it could have the effect of pushing Smith’s election interference trial well beyond November’s election even if it does not immediately curtail aspects of the special counsel’s prosecution.

Trump’s year of peaks and disasters

With Trump eyeing a return to the White House, the justices’ evaluation of never-before-considered arguments on the limits of executive power is especially critical given his controversial belief that he would enjoy near unfettered authority in the Oval Office that would effectively place the presidency above the law.

There was more good legal news for Trump in Florida, as federal Judge Aileen Cannon, whom he appointed, on Thursday plunged deeper into pretrial litigation in the case over his alleged handling of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago resort.

The way Cannon has overseen the case – and her frequent clashes with Smith’s team – have already ensured that another one of Trump’s criminal indictments will not go to trial before the election. And like the federal election interference case, the documents matter is one that a Trump-appointed attorney general in a second administration would have the power to dismiss. A second 2020 election case, in Georgia, is also stalled – partly over a controversy and appeals process triggered by a relationship between District Attorney Fani Willis and a prosecutor she appointed.

There have been plenty of grim weeks for Trump this year, especially over the weekslong hush money trial that resulted in him becoming the first ex-president and major party presumptive nominee to be found guilty of a crime. And on July 11, his humiliation will be reinforced when he attends sentencing in New York before Judge Juan Merchan.

His enforced attendance will epitomize his year of personal and political troughs and highs as it will take place just days before the ex-president travels to the Republican National Convention to formally accept his third consecutive presidential nomination. Trump is also expected to use the event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to unveil his vice-presidential nominee.

There are still four months until the election – a span of political time that could see unforeseen events and crises at home and abroad that could transform the race. But Thursday night’s debate could hardly have gone better for Trump, who has been locked in a neck-and-neck race with Biden with a slight edge in the swing states that will decide the election.

While it’s too early to assess how voters will respond, the president’s disastrous performance unleashed despair among Democrats now questioning whether Biden should remain on the ticket. Even if Biden manages to bounce back, his campaign will never be able to erase the impressions of millions of television viewers who saw an elderly man struggling to compete sentences, losing his train of thought and gaping in apparent open-mouthed confusion at Trump – who cut a more vigorous, if deceitful, figure. The optics of the night helped reinforce a Republican narrative that the 81-year-old president is suffering from compromised cognition and the views of a majority of Americans that he’s too old to serve a second term.

Biden’s struggles also gave Trump a free pass on a night when his gusher of lies and conspiracy theories showed that if anything, he’s become more vengeful and threatening to the rule of law since he left office in disgrace after a chaotic one-term presidency in January 2021.

A more effective presidential performance in the debate might have inflicted terminal damage on Trump’s campaign. But while Biden failed his test of vitality at the debate, the ex-president’s generally calm demeanor in the critical early exchanges meant that he did not play into Biden’s accusations that he is “unhinged” and that something has “snapped” in him. While the president did manage to highlight Trump’s extreme behavior and falsehoods later in the evening, the initial sparring was so devastating to Biden that his successes may have passed many voters by.

Trump is only three years younger than Biden and often lapses into gibberish in campaign events. But polls show that voters worry less about his mental faculties and age.

Many senior Democrats publicly argued on Friday that a bad debate did not mean that the reality of the election – involving a Republican candidate who has already sought to destroy democracy and might do so again – has not changed. Yet the stark truth for Biden is that his fumbling performance will only exacerbate concerns of many voters who cannot imagine him fully executing a second term that would end when he is 86.

The Supreme Court hands Trump more favorable news

In the January 6 case the Supreme Court on Friday ruled that the Justice Department overstepped by bringing obstruction charges against hundreds of people who rioted at the Capitol. At least some of those cases are likely to be reopened. The high court did however rule that the charge could still be filed against the rioters if prosecutors are able to show they were attempting not just to push their way into the building, but rather to stop the certification of the 2020 election. This wrinkle may allow Smith to also maintain the same charge against Trump.

Trump’s team expects to file motions to get obstruction counts against the former president dismissed, a source familiar with the matter told CNN’s Paula Reid. Still, Smith’s case against the presumptive GOP nominee is based on a more sweeping set of events and evidence than that arrayed against members of the pro-Trump mob.

But even if a new legal gambit by Trump’s team is successful in delaying proceedings with more litigation it would bolster his long-term goal of delaying the trial. As it is, there seems little chance a jury will hear the case in the coming months unless there is a blanket rejection by the high court of Trump’s immunity claim next week.

However, if Trump loses the election, and the case goes ahead unhindered, even the chance that his lawyers could narrow his criminal exposure could be immensely valuable to the ex-president.

In the Florida documents case, Cannon said on Thursday that she wants to hold additional hearings on Trump’s attempt to challenge key evidence and will allow his lawyers to question witnesses about the investigation and the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago for classified documents in 2022.

Cannon has been accused of dragging out the case over multiple hearings. Some critics have put the delays down to her inexperience. Others have suggested that she’s operating out of favoritism to the president who appointed her. But in an 11-page order Thursday, the judge rebuked critics.

“There is a difference between a resource-wasting and delay-producing ‘mini-trial,’ on the one hand, and an evidentiary hearing geared to adjudicating the contested factual and legal issues on a given pre-trial motion to suppress,” Cannon wrote.

As far as Trump is concerned, Cannon can string out the case as long as she wants, especially if it keeps his favorable recent good run going.

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