There were two major concerns before Tuesday’s historic first criminal arraignment of an ex-president of the United States.
The first was that, while Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case may contain substantial proof of Donald Trump’s alleged malfeasance, his legal argument may be too ambiguous, convoluted, and reminiscent of a 7-year-old election to be easily sold to the public.
The second possibility was that Trump would respond with such rage and provocation that he would rip even deeper schisms in a country already divided by his erratic leadership and spark new unrest that would further erode critical political and judicial institutions.
Both of those worst-case situations occurred on a day Trump called a “SURREAL” in a social media tweet posted as he motorcades to court to surrender. As a result, another bleak, even tragic chapter may lie ahead for a country that is still reeling from the fallout from Trump’s single term as it prepares for yet another painful election.
One of the most foreboding days in American legal history began with the ex-president leaving his tower home in the city where he had achieved renown as a real estate shark and tabloid-filling celebrity, but which was now about to land him in jail.
Trump entered the courthouse slowly and was led to the fingerprinting station. News images of the world’s once-most-powerful man – with a face like thunder, sitting at a table with lawyers like any other defendant – represented his moment of devastating humiliation.
Trump remained mute in court, saying just “not guilty,” and he did not speak to reporters following the hearing. Trump was ready to erupt by the time he swapped the stark decor of the courtroom for friendly territory, under the sparkling chandeliers of his gold-leafed resort in Florida.
“Our country has gone to Hell,” he claimed, launching into a rambling tirade rife with conspiracy theories that included an impassioned rant against prosecutors in other, perhaps more severe cases than the one in Manhattan.
His enraged reaction to those cases demonstrated his growing concern about his vulnerability as prosecutors in separate investigations look into his attempt to steal Joe Biden’s election win in Georgia in 2020, his hoarding of classified documents, and his behavior leading up to January 6, 2021, insurgency. Yet, it also indicated that, with numerous investigations appearing to be nearing completion, Trump could face additional indictments shortly.
Given that the next hearing in the Manhattan case is on December 4, and the other cases appear to address more serious constitutional issues, Tuesday’s events may be overshadowed. The day a former president was charged with a felony will be remembered forever, but it may be considered the beginning of an unsettling process for Trump rather than a historic finale.
Bragg leaves important questions unresolved
Bragg’s argument is based on the basic and important assumption that no one, not even an ex-president seeking re-election, should be above the law. But, critics of the district attorney are concerned that another, equally opposing principle is at work: whether someone famous, wealthy, and powerful gets prosecuted while a less well-known individual is allowed free.
The indictment stated that “the defendant Donald J. Trump repeatedly and fraudulently manipulated New York company records to hide criminal behavior that disguised damaging information from the voting public throughout the 2016 presidential election.”
The court filings allege that Trump and his then-attorney, Michael Cohen, collaborated with American Media Inc. to pay adult film star Stormy Daniels, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, and a doorman at Trump Tower. Payments of secret cash are not prohibited. Yet, Democratic Party member Bragg claims that Trump fabricated financial records to conceal the donations. Such offenses would ordinarily be considered minor felonies. But, Bragg asserted that if the books were falsified to conceal evidence of illegal activity related to the 2016 election, a felony might be brought against the perpetrators.
Trump’s actions, as documented in court records and a previous case involving Cohen, were unquestionably filthy. Yet, some legal commentators believe that Bragg’s legal roadmap could pave the way for Trump’s attorneys to file significant pre-trial motions.
Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe told the associated press Tuesday evening that his fellow senior law enforcement professionals were “disappointed” that the New indictment and statement of facts were not more detailed on the jump required to charge Trump with a felony.
“Everyone was wanting to see more about the path of this prosecution, what is the legal theory that relates that very good misdemeanor case… to the purpose to conceal another crime?” McCabe stated.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “if all of our legal friends read this indictment and don’t see a route to a felony, it’s difficult to envision convincing a jury that they should.”
However, Bragg emphasized that not prosecuting Trump would violate every fundamental notion of American justice.
“We cannot and will not normalize serious criminal behavior,” he declared following Trump’s appearance in court. Such cases, he claimed, were not exceptional, but rather “the bread and butter” of his office’s work.
“At its heart, today’s case is one with allegations, as do so many of our white-collar cases.” Claims that someone misled repeatedly to protect their interests and avoid the laws that we are all held accountable for,” Bragg added.
The legal case’s apparent intricacy will be played out in court. Yet, given Trump’s standing as a former president seeking re-election in 2024, it will have significant political ramifications.
If it is difficult for lawyers to understand the reasoning underlying Bragg’s argument, it will be considerably more difficult for everyone else. Many may wonder whether manipulating corporate documents to cover up an alleged affair from years before the 2016 election, which now seems so distant, truly justifies the politically risky action of charging an ex-president for the first time in American history. (Trump has denied having an affair.)
Several Republicans who oppose the former president, including former Trump national security advisor John Bolton, expressed concern that the Bragg indictment could be used against the district attorney and assist Trump politically. Utah Senator Mitt Romney, another Trump foe, also attacked the case.
“I feel President Trump is unsuited for office because of his character and actions.” “But, I believe the New York prosecutor went over and beyond to get felony criminal charges to serve a political goal,” Romney added.
Trump lashes out at Bragg and the judge
Trump, like any other American in his position, should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Unlike many other defendants, he can use every legal tool at his disposal to try to get the case dismissed before it goes to trial.
But he’s not going to wait.
After receiving a hero’s welcome at Mar-a-Lago, he launched into a rant full of lies about the investigations into him, Biden’s presidency, and his term in office. He resurrected his baseless allegations that the 2020 election was stolen from him, and he framed Bragg’s research and others as attempts to fix another election.
“They can’t beat us at the voting box, so they try to beat us through the law,” he said in a speech in which he also claimed the Manhattan judge and his wife were “Trump-hating.” The ex-logic president was frequently difficult to understand, and he shouted certain words for emphasis in a way that conveyed his rage. Yet, while rambling, Trump revealed another component of the diatribe evocative of his “American carnage” inaugural speech.
He is following in the footsteps of some of the world’s most prominent demagogues by attempting to undermine trust in institutions that seek to regulate his behavior and claiming to be the victim of political persecution. Trump’s talent for such propaganda is demonstrated by his ability to persuade millions of his fans that the last election was rigged.
Some political analysts believe Trump’s indictment will assist him politically in the short term. His campaign has stated that donations had poured in since the grand jury opted to indict him last week. Therefore, to avoid alienating Trump’s supporters, Trump’s opponents and future GOP nominees have had little choice but to band together and criticize Bragg’s behavior.
Nevertheless, months before the GOP primary, it’s impossible to predict how Tuesday’s events will unfold. Previous research indicates that the more extreme Trump grows, the more popular he becomes among base voters.
But, the ex-president has learned some unfavorable political lessons in the past. The extremism he demonstrated on Tuesday night in front of a primetime television audience was precisely the type of radicalism that contributed to Republican losses in the 2020 election and the 2022 midterms.