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Supreme Court, Congress rival Trump as power centers

As opinion polls foresee an electoral defeat for President Donald Trump in November, leaders of the two other federal branches are increasingly emerging as challengers to his primacy here in the capital city.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been a political thorn in his side from the start of his term, as the dominant Democratic voice in Congress. Suddenly joining her now, somewhat surprisingly on key policy issues, has been Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, a fellow Republican widely regarded as a fellow conservative.

Pelosi and Roberts each has supported positions sharply opposed to the president at a critical juncture as he attempts to steer his administration through very troubled waters at home and abroad. While obviously acting independently of each other, their words and actions have complicated Trump’s campaign to unify a Grand Old Party reeling from his own erratic response to an unprecedented national health pandemic.

The House Speaker earlier this year demonstrated her velvet-glove contempt for Trump on the floor of the House. She conspicuously tore up the copy of his State of the Union address he had handed her just before delivering it. She led the House effort that impeached him but was thwarted by the subsequent Senate acquittal, and she has continued to defy him on numerous other matters.

Roberts more recently has joined the four liberal justices and two conservative justices in rejecting Trump’s claim of presidential immunity to shield his personal financial records from federal and state investigators looking into alleged violations. Roberts himself wrote the opinion holding that in our judicial system, “the public has the right to every man’s evidence.” Roberts noted: “As (Chief Justice John) Marshall explained, a king is born to power and can ‘do no wrong.’ … The president by contrast is ‘of the people’ and subject to the law.”

The chief justice also joined the four liberals in defending the so-called “dreamers,” the children of undocumented workers brought here as infants, now seeking citizenship. Trump had long opposed that path but recently suddenly acquiesced in it.

All this has been a sharp reminder to Donald Trump that in this time of political peril to his continued rule, he does not hold quite the immense power he won in the Electoral College in 2016.

Then, he had the political advantage of running against a controversial Democratic nominee in Hillary Clinton. There was substantial position if not hostility toward her in her own ranks, though she did manage to win a popular vote majority of nearly three million ballots over Trump.

This time around, the Democratic establishment has swiftly rallied behind its own prospective nominee, former vice president Joe Biden. The long hiatus in the traditional street campaigning and rallies is said to have imposed a handicap on this seasoned and gregarious hand shaker. But the lapse has also given him much time out of the limelight to fashion his campaign strategy. At the same time, Biden has been able to remain most of the time outside the customary range of opposition fire.

With the president under so much critical assault for his failure to engage effectively with the coronavirus crisis, his early success in boosting the economy has faded, and now he has his hands full trying to play defense. So far his offense has consisted of childish name-calling and the running of amateurish television ads showing Biden in his most demeaning and awkward moments, suggesting that at 77 he is too old to be president — less than four years older than Trump himself.

Thus is the Republican nominee for reelection heading toward the political fight of his life, not only against Biden and the Democrats, but also a suddenly wayward Supreme Court and its chief justice, standing up for their own independence as co-equal protectors of the Constitution.

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Jules Witcover is a nationally synicated columnist.

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