Donald Trump will take America through yet another grave and unprecedented national drama this week when he becomes the first ex-president to appear in court charged with a crime.
The 45th president is expected to turn himself in on Tuesday in Manhattan, the stage where he built his legend as a brash popular culture figure and real estate magnate but which could now, in the case of “The People of the State of New York against Donald J. Trump,” engineer his downfall.
In what will be extraordinary scenes, Trump will return to New York after a grand jury voted to indict him last week in a case involving a hush money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election. His appearance, accompanied by Secret Service agents, will come as he fires up his 2024 campaign for the White House. Trump plans to make a make a speech when he gets back to Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday night in which he will seek to leverage political advantage out of a perilous, personal legal crisis.
For many Americans who disdain Trump and his riotous single term, the case could be a sign that, finally, he is being called to account for his rule-crushing behavior and that everyone – even former presidents – are equal under the law. But Trump, using his bond with his most loyal supporters, is claiming the prosecution is a case of naked political persecution from District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, that’s designed to thwart the possibility of a presidential comeback. According to fundraising numbers that his campaign is touting, Trump is getting a political boost from the attention.
Yet a criminal indictment takes Trump into unique political territory. And however the case turns out, his return to the spotlight in these circumstances is another twist in an exhausting saga featuring a double impeachment, false claims of a stolen election, and a mob attack on the US Congress during an unruly four-year presidency that pushed the nation to the point of exhaustion and deepened its polarization.
Some legal experts, without having seen the still-sealed indictment, have questioned whether a case that appears to revolve around infringements of accounting practices and possible campaign finance violations is sufficiently serious to merit the historical step of indicting an ex-president who is already running again.
At the same time, it is ultimately Trump’s norm-busting behavior that pushed the country to this somber moment. He’s also being investigated over efforts to overturn the 2020 election result in Georgia, and by a special counsel probing his hoarding of classified documents and conduct in the run up to January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. In several of these cases, Trump could face even more serious legal problems than in the Stormy Daniels matter, but that case is the only one so far that has yielded an indictment.
Trump has denied wrongdoing in all of the cases. But once more, America’s political and legal systems, under a near-constant stress test since he came down the escalator in Trump Tower to launch his campaign in 2015, will be put under enormous pressure that is likely to only deepen the country’s internal estrangement.
Trump’s team previews aggressive legal strategy
In the run-up to Tuesday’s appearance, Trump’s legal team gave a preview of a robust defense that will unfold against a backdrop of a furious political campaign. Already, his leading loyalists are seeking to use the power of the new GOP House majority to try to interfere in Bragg’s prosecution. In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Trump lawyer Joe Tacopina said the ex-president’s team would loudly and proudly declare he is not guilty and signaled an attempt to try to prevent the case ever from reaching trial.
“I very much anticipate a motion to dismiss coming, because there’s no law that fits this,” Tacopina said, accusing Bragg, a local prosecutor, of overstepping his powers by seeking to charge a federal election crime. Trump may have been indicted for infringing laws in New York, but since the charges haven’t been made public, it is impossible to assess his claims. CNN’s John Miller reported last week that Trump will face more than 30 counts related to business fraud.
While Trump’s critics have celebrated the indictment as a sign that no one is above the law, Tacopina argued that the ex-president was actually getting worse treatment than an ordinary citizen would because of his fame and political aspirations.
“Had he not been running for office right now, for the office of the presidency – which, by the way, the polls have shown since this has been announced, his numbers have gone up significantly – had he not been running for presidency, he would not have been indicted,” Tacopina said. Bragg has made no public comment on the case since the indictment came down last Thursday.
Tacopina also telegraphed an effort to target the credibility of Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who made a $130,000 payment to Daniels and went to prison on charges including lying to Congress, but who may be a central witness in any trial of Trump.
“Michael Cohen is a pathological, convicted liar, perjurer. He’s lied to banks, the IRS, Congress,” Tacopina said. But Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, hit back, warning on “State of the Union” that a Trump defense shredding his client’s reputation would not work. “My old friend Joe Tacopina … (has) a wrong strategy if he thinks he’s building his whole strategy on personal attacks on Michael Cohen,” Davis said.
While Trump’s characteristically aggressive attacks on Bragg, the judge in the case, and the Biden Justice Department might be effective in a political context, there’s no guarantee they’ll work in court. Bragg does have an exacting task in that he must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump committed crimes. But the former president is now in an new position for him – he’s subject to the rules of evidence and the schedule of a court that may be unmoved by his normal methods of attack, deflect and delay.
An unprecedented moment
The never-before-seen spectacle of a former president showing up for a first court appearance will transfix the nation on Tuesday. Tacopina told CNN’s Dana Bash that he was still waiting for details of what would happen. But the complexities of arraigning a former president under close Secret Service protection means that this is no ordinary case – even if justice suggests Trump should be treated like any other citizen.
Intense security is already in place in New York given the political sensitivities of the case and after Trump warned of potential “death and destruction” ahead of being charged, especially given his past incitement before the Capitol insurrection. So far, however, Trump’s calls for protests have not drawn many of his supporters onto the streets.
CNN has reported that Trump was caught off guard by the grand jury’s decision to indict him, according to a person who spoke directly with him. While he was previously bracing for an indictment, he began to believe reports that a potential charge was weeks – or more – away.
The indictment has already had an impact in the GOP presidential race, with leading potential challengers to Trump, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, joining the ex-president’s allies in Congress to blast the Bragg investigation as motivated by partisanship. Given Trump’s popularity with grassroots Republicans, his potential rivals may have no other move, but it would be premature to conclude that Trump’s legal problems will prove to be a long-term rallying point for GOP voters.
DeSantis, who has yet to declare a run, is running a shadow campaign rooted in the premise that he could offer Trump-style policies without the chaos or distractions of the ex-president. And many Republicans are already concerned that an indicted GOP nominee could be a liability in a general election in November 2024. Another Republican, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has called on Trump to step aside because of the indictment, announced his own run for president on Sunday.
In a statement on Thursday, Trump showed that he will respond to this brush with political fate in the same way he has lashed out at previous threats in his business and political career – with fury and by seeking to use his political power to stir up huge disruption and partisan anger.
“I believe this Witch-Hunt will backfire massively on Joe Biden,” he said. “The American people realize exactly what the Radical Left Democrats are doing here. Everyone can see it. So our Movement, and our Party – united and strong – will first defeat Alvin Bragg, and then we will defeat Joe Biden, and we are going to throw every last one of these Crooked Democrats out of office so we can MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
His approach means that this Tuesday is likely to be just the start of a new, dramatic and divisive chapter in Trump’s political career and another extreme test for America.