Friday, February 23, 2024

The Trials of Trump

The former US President sat quietly at the defense table in a Miami federal courtroom as his lawyer entered his plea of not guilty to the indictment charging Trump with 37 counts of violating the US Espionage Act. Trump is the first US leader ever to be arraigned on felony charges. Has he finally run out of escapes after a lifetime of breaking the rules and flaunting the law?

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By Kenneth Tiven

Donald Trump’s brief time in a Miami courthouse took place in a tightly guarded and restricted courthouse while outside demonstrators on both sides were kept apart by a heavy police presence. Trump entered the Courthouse complex through an underground parking lot and tunnel for intake processing leading to the brief arraignment hearing before a federal magistrate. The 37-count indictment is for possession of classified documents for more than a year, refusing to give them back when requested under the Presidential Records Act. (All official documents belong to the government not the president.) Trump, wearing a dark suit and a red tie, sat with his arms crossed while the magistrate judge described the indictment. Folded arms are Trump’s go-to pose when he is feeling defiant.

Before the court appearance, he had issued a steady stream of emails and social network statements defaming the Justice Department, President Biden and special prosecutor Jack Smith in the most personal of terms. We will learn if this continues given the formal indictment. His valet and co-defendant Walt Nauta was seated at the table as well with his attorney.

Jack Scott, Jay Bratt, David Harbach and Julie Edelstein were among the prosecutors present for the Justice Department. Todd Blanche defended Trump in New York State court in Manhattan last month and had previously defended Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Concurrently, he represents Boris Epshteyn, a controversial legal adviser to the former president. Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman conducted the arraignment quickly, with the intake process equally swift, including fingerprinting, forms filled out, but no mug shots.

An arraignment is a legal formality. A judge describes the charges, the defendant enters a plea, some scheduling issues are typically discussed. Things will heat up in the coming months as discovery goes forward, then comes a better sense of when a trial might take place, what Trump’s defense might be and which judge will handle the trial. The young federal district judge selected with a random system is the same judge who previously mishandled a Trump case and was resoundingly overruled and criticized by the 11 Circuit Court of Appeals. She could recuse herself as a recent Trump appointee, but if not, it is excepted the government will seek her replacement with a senior jurist.

The indictment specifies 31 counts of willful retention of national defense information, plus 1 count of false statements and representations, 1 count of conspiracy to obstruct justice, 1 count of withholding a document or record, 1 count of corruptly concealing a document or record, 1 count of concealing a document in a federal investigation, 1 count of scheme to conceal. An issue the prosecution faces is related to the reluctance to reveal the contents of classified secret documents involved. The government will likely argue that the mere fact of being classified makes it illegal to reveal the contents. It surprises no one that this indictment has ignited political partisanship based on unquestioning loyalty to Trump. Most Republican politicians so fear their voters that they willingly repeat claims this is a political attack by the Biden administration. One member of Congress has portrayed the indictment as an act of war. Other politicians have called for retribution, stressing that much of Trump’s MAGA base own weapons.

Jack Smith, special prosecutor, Department of Justice in announcing the indictment last week, said the classified documents case was not an error of record keeping. The 49-page indictment summarizes what Smith’s team discovered and presented to a “grand jury of citizens in the Southern District of Florida”. Approval from the grand jury confirms, he said, the scope and the gravity of the crimes charged. Presenting the investigation to a Florida Grand Jury was a surprise. This indictment reads like a crime short story about a gang that couldn’t shoot straight. It uses Trump’s words to show he wanted everyone to know he had these classified documents. In two separate anecdotes, Trump boasts to random lay people that he has secret military information, then shares some of that information with them. Most likely evidence that is not in the arraignment will be used in court.

Smith, a veteran prosecutor, was not interested in repeating the mistakes of the Mueller Probe in 2016. That probe found connections between Russian agents and the Trump 2016 presidential campaign, but the report was shrouded in legal complexities. Refusing initially to release it, Trump’s attorney general William Barr defenestrated it in his redacted explanation of its conclusions. The facts presented in this Trump indictment consist of information obtained almost entirely from Republican politicians, staff and lawyers who worked with Trump. Yet, his supporters believe that any action against Trump is, by extension, an attack on their belief system. Many former Trump associates will be called to testify against the president.

Notwithstanding any conviction on the 31 counts listed, and any possible prison sentence, Trump will remain eligible for MAGA Republicans to support if he is the GOP nominee in the 2024 election. The reality is anyone can try to be president of the USA if they were born in USA, are older than 35 and have lived in the USA for the past 14 years. Competence and experience are not prerequisites. At his first political rally after the indictment announcement, a defiant Trump told the crowd: “I shall never be detained”. Bravado is never in short supply with Trump and likely to continue as this is the first of several legal cases against Trump for:

  • His demands to change vote totals in Georgia.
  • His participation in organizing an insurrection on January 6.
  • His role in attempting to create fake electoral college results.

Trump has flooded the internet with outrage on social media because the indictment rests on espionage act violations, which could involve prison time. Republicans are now screaming to not lock him up. I remember Trump at a campaign rally in 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina, saying: “In my administration, I’m going to enforce all laws concerning the protection of classified information. No one will be above the law.” A month earlier, he tweeted this: “@realDonald­Trump—Crooked Hillary Clinton and her team were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information. Not fit!” Examples of Trump with his “Lock her up” chants in 2016 reinforce that candidate Trump knew how classified documents had to be handled.

Trump was not surprised on June 8 by the indictment. He received a “target letter” from Special Counsel Smith three weeks earlier on May 19, and raged on his Truth Social website the next day. “TRUMP Hating Special Prosecutor Jack Smith, whose family and friends are Big Time Haters also, will be working overtime on this treasonous quest,” he said, referring to Democrats supposedly stepping up their “fake investigations”. 

In lockstep, Republicans in political positions are now “shocked” at a government response to Trump stealing and then refusing to return classified documents. Partisanship demands a suspension of intellectual honesty and decency. Considering the public nature of Mar-a-Lago, leaving classified documents stored in unlocked spaces is indefensible. Trump’s year of stonewalling requests for the return led the FBI to search Mar-a-Lago, discovering classified documents, including those in Trump’s office. A court ruling that negated client-lawyer privilege, meant several of his lawyers had to testify to the grand jury. They related how Trump asked them to conspire with him to deceive the government. Then they wisely quit working for Trump since lawyers can lose their license for criminal conspiracy with clients.

Winning re-election in 2024 is vital as it will provide two essentials Trump needs—a “get out of jail” card as president and the ability to use the US government for retribution against those who recognized him for what he most certainly is: An angry 77-year-old duffer who lies about his golf scores and who has led a charmed life claiming success while deceiving banks and governments for decades. His supporters claim that it’s a witch-hunt staged by the Biden administration to keep him from running in 2024. They believe the 45th president of the USA is a hero fighting for them. Few have read the indictment, while most will ignore it. Trump’s rage aims at harvesting millions of dollars from small donors since federally required fundraising data indicates that big businesses and rich donors are, for the most part, sitting on their wallets. 

Has Trump finally run out of escapes after a lifetime of breaking the rules and flaunting the law? His lack of honesty has never been in question. He comes across as an insecure braggart in the indictment, a man desperate to cling to his status after an embarrassing fall from power. Six business bankruptcies should have prepared him for this. But his cavalier attitude about taking classified material will play a decisive role in the outcome of this case. A conviction based on harsh facts will be unacceptable to his political supporters. A six-year political nightmare is not over. 

—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels

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