Republican House friends of Donald Trump are doing what the last president taught them to do: using government power to attempt to keep his legal threats at bay.
After Trump’s threat to be arrested, his friends have been using their new House majority to demand Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s testimony and hinder his investigation into an alleged hush money payment to an adult film star before the 2016 election. It appears to be an unusual attempt to sway an ongoing grand jury inquiry.
In reality, the House GOP looks to be utilizing the same technique that the Biden administration, Bragg, and any other investigators on Trump’s trail are accused of employing – weaponizing government powers to promote a partisan political objective.
But, there are enough concerns about a hypothetical prosecution assembled by Bragg, as well as the unusual form of potential accusations relating to commercial and election law crimes, to prompt nonpartisan legal experts to wonder if the case would live up to its hype. Given the gravity of any prospective case against a former president, this is an especially critical problem.
Meanwhile, Trump’s demands for protests have officials on edge in New York, where surveillance cameras and barriers have been erected, and in Washington, where bitter memories of his provocation of violence to promote his personal and political aims on January 6, 2021, have been erected.
Then there’s the carnival atmosphere around this drama, spurred by Trump’s weekend forecast that he’d be arrested on Tuesday. A source close to Trump’s legal team told the associated press on Monday that they have no information on the date of a potential indictment other than the DA’s statement that nothing is expected on Tuesday. While a charge might come as soon as this week, a senior law enforcement person familiar with ongoing security deliberations told the associated press that any prospective court appearance by the former president will be delayed until next week. Such a situation would only exacerbate tensions when it appears that politics is once again revolving around Trump in a whirlwind.
On Monday, for example, there was great attention surrounding a courthouse in New York where one witness presented testimony that could have been useful to Trump. Then an acrimonious feud erupted between Trump and Ron DeSantis, Trump’s probable GOP presidential competitor. The Florida governor mocked his former mentor, claiming he had no idea of “paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of supposed affair,” while also decrying what he called political charges. Trump retaliated with a furious counter-attack full of unfounded insinuation about his opponent’s private life, foreshadowing a potentially unpleasant GOP primary race and hinting at the ex-rage president’s over what he perceives as DeSantis’ treachery.
The terrifying prospect of a former president being charged for the first time hangs over everything. And, because he’s running for President again, any indictment virtually probably means that his accusations of plots against him and his followers will taint yet another American election.
House Republicans are advancing Trump’s strategy
House Republicans’ strategy is well-known. Trump has long launched ferocious and preemptive attacks on institutions, whether in government or the law, that seek to hold him accountable, as he attempts to cloud clarity about his conduct or culpability and incite a political storm that taints their conclusions in advance.
House Republicans, though, are taking Trump’s strategy a step further with their campaign against Bragg.
“It’s a political play,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, whose job may depend on Trump’s continued political patronage, said on Monday, claiming that it was completely legitimate for the ex-associates presidents to publicly criticize a prosecutor while he was carrying out his duties. Or, as one California Republican put it, House committees have the authority to question members.
Nevertheless, the use of government authority to accomplish political goals appears to mimic exactly the behavior Republicans are accusing the FBI, Justice Department and other government agencies of in their new subcommittee on the weaponization of the federal government.
“It’s evident that this is a hoax, and something that we want to know – were federal dollars involved?” said House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of the Manhattan investigation. “We don’t think President Trump broke the law at all,” the Ohio Republican told the associated press.
Jordan and two other House chairs ordered Bragg’s testimony, accusing him of an “extraordinary abuse of prosecutorial authority.”
“We will not be frightened by attempts to subvert the legal process, nor will we let unsubstantiated claims discourage us from fairly implementing the law,” Bragg’s spokesperson stressed. The statement also refuted Republican assertions that Bragg neglected violent crime in New York in his pursuit of a pretext to prosecute Trump to accomplish a political vendetta.
Republicans, like the rest of the country, have no idea what the evidence against Trump might be, aside from hints in media accounts and a previous case involving his ex-lawyer – Michael Cohen, a key witness in the current case – who was previously sentenced to prison for tax fraud, making false statements to Congress, and violating campaign finance laws.
In an ideal world, someone who is indicted, as Trump may be in the coming days, would have the opportunity to refute a case that they believe is unfair and unsupported by evidence. But Trump and his supporters are not waiting for that time, and in doing so, they are providing a preview of the months of escalating political instability that a prosecution may entail – not just in Manhattan, but in several other investigations into him. The investigations into his role in the lead-up to the Capitol insurgency, his attempt to reverse the outcome of Georgia’s 2020 election, and his handling of confidential materials could have considerably greater constitutional ramifications than the Bragg case.
The associated press reported on Monday, citing a source with knowledge of the inquiry, that Atlanta-area prosecutors are considering filing racketeering and conspiracy charges in connection with Trump’s election stealing campaign in the Peach State.
According to the source, their investigation demonstrates that the movement to help Trump was more than just a grassroots effort within the state.
Fears regarding a prospective case
The GOP assault on measures to hold Trump responsible is reminiscent of the continually violated norms and conventions that were a daily drumbeat when Trump was in office twice.
Nevertheless, a sense of uncertainty is accentuated by a potential case against him, which some legal experts say is far from a foregone conclusion in court. A botched prosecution of a former president would have far-reaching ramifications, potentially deepening the country’s political divide. Such a blunder would very definitely be used by Trump and his supporters to reinforce the notion that any attempt to hold him accountable for his outrageous behavior is biased and unwarranted.
Some legal experts have questioned why a former prosecutor did not pursue the case against Trump over an alleged $130,000 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels, pointing out that the allegation originates from an election that occurred more than six years ago.
“In the New York instance, my main question is, what has changed?” On Monday’s “Situation Room,” the associated press legal analyst told Wolf Blitzer. “The facts of this case have been stale for nearly seven years. So the fundamental question I have about New York is, “What has changed recently in the last year or so that has brought it to this point?”
Onlookers outside the grand jury and DA’s office are likewise concerned about the possibility of a case against Trump. Although hush money payments are not illegal, the ex-president might face a misdemeanor prosecution for allegedly incorrectly classifying a payment to Daniels in business records. If it is established that Trump attempted to conceal the money to conduct another crime, which in this case might be a breach of campaign finance laws, the charges could be upgraded to a felony. Trump previously denied knowing about the payment.
This is a detailed legal story that may persuade a jury but may be difficult to sell in the larger battle for public opinion in such a highly politicized matter.
Another major question regarding the credibility of a potential prosecution is how much it would rely on Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who was a key actor in the Daniels case but has a lengthy history of lying.
On Monday, Robert Costello, an attorney who has previously defended Trump loyalists like Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani, testified before the grand jury for over three hours after attending at the request of Trump’s legal team.
Costello was anticipated to present evidence that contradicted Cohen’s testimony, in which he admitted to paying Daniels $130,000 to keep her quiet about an alleged affair with the former president. Trump has denied having an affair.
“I’ve watched Michael Cohen stand in front of the courthouse and say things that are directly contradictory to what he said to us,” Costello said after an appearance that prompted some experts to doubt whether his testimony could influence a grand jury vote on an indictment.
It appears improbable that a case would be brought merely on Cohen’s word, without substantial corroborating evidence. But, the rest of the country is still learning about this serious issue.
That, however, is not enough to calm the storm that has accompanied Trump’s return to the political center stage, which could approach hurricane status in the coming days.