March 20, 2023

Indicting Trump

Former U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday said he expects to be arrested on Tuesday as New York prosecutors consider charges over a hush money payment to a porn star, and called on his supporters to protest… A spokesman for Trump said the former president had not been notified of any arrest… Trump's statement that he expected to be arrested on Tuesday is based on news reports that [Manhattan District Attorney Alvin] Bragg's office is going to be meeting with law enforcement to prepare for a possible indictment.” Reuters

Many on all sides agree that the potential case against Trump appears weak:

“It is extremely difficult to show that paying money to cover up an embarrassing affair was done for election purposes as opposed to an array of obvious other reasons, from protecting a celebrity’s reputation to preserving a marriage. That was demonstrated by the failed federal prosecution of former presidential candidate John Edwards on a much stronger charge of using campaign funds to cover up an affair…

“The Southern District of New York’s U.S. Attorney’s office had no love lost for Trump, pursuing him and his associates in myriad investigations, but it ultimately rejected a prosecution based on the election law violations. It was not alone: The Federal Election Commission chair also expressed doubts about the theory. Prosecutors working under Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., also reportedly rejected the viability of using a New York law to effectively charge a federal offense. More importantly, Bragg himself previously expressed doubts about the case, effectively shutting it down soon after he took office.”
Jonathan Turley, The Hill

“Trump’s former lawyer and fix-it man Michael Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal campaign finance violations for his role in orchestrating the hush money scheme… This is frustrating and seemingly unjust: Why did Cohen have to serve time for doing something on behalf of Trump, who — at least so far — gets to skate? But it’s not so easy to turn a federal case into a successful state prosecution, which is what Bragg is reportedly contemplating. ‘This is not a state case, it is a federal case, and they have all passed on it,’ Trump wrote on his social media platform, Truth Social, and he might have a point…

“New York state law makes it a crime to falsify business records — for example, listing hush money payments as a retainer — but that is only a misdemeanor. It could rise to the level of a felony charge if prosecutors could show that Trump ordered falsification of records to conceal another crime. But would ‘another crime’ need to be a federal offense, or would a state offense be sufficient?… Plus, there are knotty questions about whether New York’s ordinary five-year statute of limitation would apply in [this] case.”
Ruth Marcus, Washington Post

“The difficulty in making a case against Trump owes to the fact that hush payments are sleazy, but legal… Unless Bragg has something on Trump that no one knows about, this appears to be a prosecution in search of a legal theory. Everything indicates that Bragg is more interested in subjecting Trump to the humiliations attendant to getting charged (turning himself in in New York, and mug shots and all the rest of it) and the grinding distraction of a criminal defense than in the cogency of the case itself…

“As the New York Times put it last week, the Bragg case ‘hinges on an untested and therefore risky legal theory involving a complex interplay of laws, all amounting to a low-level felony.’ In other words, exactly what you want to indict a former president on. That description in the Times matches almost exactly one from the paper last year on why Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance, passed on the Stormy case: The office concluded, ‘with the help of outside legal experts, that it would hinge on a largely untested and therefore risky legal theory.’”
Rich Lowry, National Review

“By itself, falsifying business records is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 and/or up to 364 days in jail. Judges can impose probation instead of a jail sentence. To convert that misdemeanor into a felony, prosecutors would have to prove that Trump was trying to conceal evidence of a criminal campaign finance violation. But Trump, who seems confused about what federal election law requires, arguably did not have the requisite intent to commit that crime. And if he did not think he was committing a crime, it is hard to see how [he] could have intended to ‘conceal’ it by falsifying business records…

“Trump's supporters would see such a case as a desperate, partisan attempt to punish him for a minor offense by dubiously treating it as a felony. Many Americans who are not particularly fond of Trump would be inclined to agree. Such a precedent would tend to discredit any effort to prosecute him for anything, including more serious charges, such as solicitation of election fraud, that have a stronger basis. That is exactly the sort of ammunition that Trump wants, and Bragg seems keen to provide it.”
Jacob Sullum, Reason

“Proving Trump had any sort of intent is always tricky. He doesn’t leave many smoking guns lying around. He doesn’t send emails or texts. He speaks in code. We may know exactly what he means, but then he claims he didn’t say anything of the sort. As just one example, Trump claims he has ‘never met’ people whom he clearly has, which can be a cryptic statement. The point is Trump is slippery in his use of language, and he lies. A lot…

“Any indictment of a former president would be historic. In fact, such a criminal indictment would be a first in our nation’s history. One thing we know about historic firsts: We view them as test cases for what is possible. If Bragg were to move forward on an indictment and lose his case, it would have a ripple effect, both legally and politically, on future cases against Trump. For the sake of the rule of law and of legal and political accountability, let’s hope Bragg and his office know something we don’t about the strength of his case against the former president.”
Jessica Levinson, MSNBC

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