The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) On Tuesday, April 4th, the Donald Trump show, after a few years’ hiatus, returned to New York. Demonstrators and counterdemonstrators, MAGA maniacs, and committed members of the resistance converged on lower Manhattan for what turned out to be a relatively disappointing premiere of what is likely to be a long-running show involving Donald Trump and his legal problems.
In the hours before Trump appeared before Judge Juan Merchan pundits opined earnestly about the gravity of the charges facing Trump and how Trump was handling this new crisis. The consensus, reflecting, as usual, the collective hopes of the chattering classes rather than reality, was that Trump was dejected, even worried, about what promises to be a long arduous process. Others more attuned to legal processes waited to see what would be learned when the details of the 34 counts in the indictment filed by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg were revealed. Many, including me, hoped that the charges against Trump would be expanded to include real estate and tax fraud not directly related to the hush money he paid to Stormy Daniels in 2016.
It turns out the indictment was focused almost entirely on the hush money and the financial and legal shenanigans Trump and his aides engaged in around those payments. The evidence of Trump’s guilt in those matters is overwhelming. Almost nobody, other MAGA cult members, claims that Trump is innocent in this matter. Moreover, Trump has a record of criminality that began decades ago in New York and continued throughout his presidency.
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The fact that Trump is in a colloquial and moral sense a criminal is not enough to secure a conviction. The process for doing that will occur in the courtroom. Here, I defer to what so many legal experts, as well as smart lawyers with whom I have discussed this privately, have indicated. It brings me absolutely no joy to say this, but the consensus among those legal minds, many of whom have been card-carrying anti-Trump resistors for years, is that the case against Trump is a bit flimsy.
We cannot yet know if Trump will be convicted on any of these charges. The question seems to be more of whether the accusations rise to the level of a felony rather than whether he illegally funneled hush money to Stormy Daniels. It pretty apparent that Trump did that. It is certainly possible that Trump will be found guilty on at least some of these charges particularly because the DA’s office will have top lawyers on the prosecution side while Trump due to, among other things his longstanding practice of not paying his lawyers, will not be served by the best counsel. However, most experts agree that even if Trump is convicted, he is unlikely to serve significant time behind bars.
Regardless of the outcome of this trial-something that will not be known for quite some time-Trump may already be winning on another important front. Trump is already convincing many that this is in fact a politically motivated indictment. Republicans believed this before much was known about the case, but because so many legal minds, including non-Republicans, are questioning the strength of the case, it is likely that other Americans may believe Trump’s assertion-not that he is innocent, but that Alvin Bragg is going after him for political reasons. Trump and his supporters are leavening this claim with racist rhetoric targeting Alvin Bragg, who is African American, and with anti-Semitic dog whistles by frequently mentioning the name of George Soros in connection with Bragg.
The problem is that while Trump was always going to assert that this was political, the nature of the charges makes this a fertile ground for that assertion to stick.
Even if the case is politically motivated, it will go to trial. Given that Trump almost certainly committed the crimes of which he is accused, it is very possible he will be convicted. However, the more important issue is that the bigger cases against Trump are in Fulton County, Georgia where Trump is being accused of interfering with the 2020 election, and in Washington, DC where the Department of Justice may prosecute Trump for his role in inciting a violent attack on the Capitol in January of 2021. Those are very grave charges in which the evidence against Trump is overwhelming.
Unfortunately, it is possible that because of the problems with the case in Manhattan, Trump’s narrative that allegations against him are entirely politically motivated will have gained enough traction that many will believe all cases against Trump are political. That narrative will not convince all, perhaps not even a majority, of Americans but some will be persuaded. Moreover, the narrative of Trump as being the victim of selective justice is already the consensus in the Republican Party; and the discourse around the New York indictment will deepen and further inspire Trump’s base-a base that is already prone to violence and cult-like loyalty to their leader. Indicting a former president, even one as mired in criminality as Donald Trump is an unavoidably political issue. Platitudes about nobody being above the law-a trope that ignores the profound racism and classism that has characterized the criminal justice system in the US pretty much forever does not change that. For this reason, it was essential that Alvin Bragg have a powerful and compelling case against Trump. Better legal minds than me seem to think Bragg has come up short in that regard. The political impact of that may be not only to strengthen Trump but in the all-important court of public opinion to undermine future and stronger cases against him.