The Trump show returns to airwaves ahead of ’24 US elections | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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The Trump show returns to airwaves ahead of ’24 US elections

Apr 06, 2023 12:51 PM IST

April 4 events have sparked a legal debate about the merits of the case and whether it was the wisest decision to pursue this course of action against Trump

Americans were glued to their television sets and social media feeds on Tuesday as they followed Donald Trump from the city where he grew up and now faces criminal charges to the new home he has made his own. From Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan, via the criminal court building in the lower end of the city, to the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the 45th President of the United States was having his day out.

Former US president Donald Trump(AFP) PREMIUM
Former US president Donald Trump(AFP)

Also read: Donald Trump has a child out-of-wedlock? What ex-president’s indictment said

But it was no victory march. After becoming the first former president to be formally indicted by a grand jury last week, Trump spent the afternoon in New York first surrendering to authorities in district attorney (DA) Alvin Bragg’s office, getting processed (including fingerprinted), and then facing a judge in the courtroom, where he pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of felony.

As Trump drove to the La Guardia airport to fly back to Florida, the public finally got to read the indictment and a statement of facts prepared by the DA’s office, and listen to Bragg. From the sombre courtroom mood, Trump however had shifted gears back in his private resort. With an almost celebratory air, in a speech that screamed martyrdom, Trump narrated a story of how he had been wronged in front of a crowd of supporters at the end of what had been a gruelling day.

The events of April 4 have sparked a legal debate about the merits of the case and whether it was the wisest decision on the part of the district attorney to pursue this course of action against Trump. It has galvanised Trump’s otherwise faltering campaign for now, but also left it with challenges that may become more apparent over time. It has led President Joe Biden’s White House to play a wait and watch game and introduced a big X factor in the 2024 battle.

The legal complexities

Here is the essence of Bragg’s case.

In the run-up to the presidential elections of 2016, Trump, his lawyer Michael Cohen and David Pecker, the chief executive of American Media, which publishes National Enquirer, decided to find negative stories about Trump that could damage his prospects, purchase the information, and then kill it. To do so, the National Enquirer made two payments: $30,000 to a Trump Tower doorman who claimed Trump had a child out of wedlock and $150,000 to Karen McDougal who alleged that she had an affair with Trump while he was married. This was a part of the agreed-upon “catch and kill” strategy where stories are purchased not to publish them, but suppress them.

It was in this context that four weeks before the 2016 election, Trump’s team learnt of another allegation. Stormy Daniels, an adult film actress, alleged that the presidential candidate had sexual encounters with her while he was married. Cohen, on Trump’s direction, agreed to pay Daniels a sum of $130,000 of his money through a shell company he set up for her silence. Trump promised to reimburse Cohen.

In 2017, Trump, the Trump organisation’s chief financial officer and Cohen agreed on a reimbursement and compensation scheme totaling $420,000. This entailed pretending that Cohen was on a retainer agreement with Trump through 2017 (he wasn’t); Cohen submitting a monthly invoice for $35,000 (for legal services rendered, which weren’t rendered); and either the organisation or Trump himself paying the amount through a cheque over the course of 2017.

This sequence of events is at the heart of the case. The 34 counts Trump is charged with revolve around falsification of business records — invoices, general ledger entry, cheque and stubs — during this process of reimbursing Cohen. In itself, this would be a misdemeanour. But Bragg’s case is built around how this was done “with intent to defraud and intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof” — making it a felony.

Also read: World can face nuclear World War III if Joe Biden…: Donald Trump

This is where the case enters tricky territory and has sparked a debate. In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal asked, “Where is the second crime?”

Bragg himself appeared to offer three explanations for the second crime. The first is premised on the $130,000 being a violation of federal cap on contribution limits to election campaigns — but this raises the question of whether a state attorney has the jurisdiction to make charges on a federal law violation. The second is premised on the payment being a violation of state campaign finance laws — but this raises the question of whether a state law can be applied to a federal election. And the final violation, Bragg suggested, was falsification of business records to mislead state tax authorities — where, experts said, he may be on stronger footing.

During his own press conference soon after the arraignment, Bragg argued New York was the financial capital of the world and accurate bookkeeping was at the heart of integrity of business practices. The Manhattan district attorney pursued these cases on a regular basis, he said. Once Bragg felt there was enough evidence in Trump’s case showing that records had been falsified, he pursued it because no one, irrespective of power and wealth, was exempt from law.

The political theatre

For his part, Trump’s entire narrative is based on how he has been targeted in this case not despite who he is, but purely because of who he is. This may well be the dominant theme of his campaign over the next year.

Trump’s speech late on Tuesday night revolved around how Biden had brought the country and the world to the brink of a disaster, and nothing of the sort had happened when Trump was in charge. The former president spent more time than usual in offering his defence on other cases — from the possession of classified files in his private resort to the efforts to overturn the election in Georgia.

He painted the entire Democratic administration, courts, judges, special prosecutors, district attorneys as a part of an intricate “radical Left” conspiracy meant to target him. He cast aspersions on the judge presiding over his case, attacking his family. He drew a dark picture of where America was — our country is going to hell; we are now a failing nation; the USA is a mess; radical left lunatics want to interfere with our elections by using law enforcement — to rile up the Republican base. And he offered himself as the victim and the hero, the martyr and the solution.

The favourite question in Washington DC, this week, is whether the indictment helps or hurts Trump. And going by current evidence, it does appear to be helping Trump in four distinct ways.

One, it has brought media attention back to Trump as he monopolises airwaves. Two, it has helped his fundraising efforts, with the campaign claiming it has raised $8 million in just five days after the indictment. Three, polls show Trump assume a lead over his nearest presumptive rival for the Republican nomination, Ron DeSantis of Florida — a Yahoo poll conducted 24 hours after the indictment showed the former president enjoy a 26 percentage point lead, a jump from the eight percentage point lead he enjoyed in mid-March. And finally, it has forced the entire Republican establishment, including Trump’s rivals, to back him and criticise the “weaponisation of the judiciary”.

But it is early days. Trump faces three other criminal investigations — revolving around his efforts to overturn the elections in Georgia; instigate a mob in the run-up to January 6 insurrection; and possession of classified national security files and obstruction of justice. More indictments may well be on their way. Despite the bravado, all of this is a drain on energy, resources and time for the Trump campaign and may well raise questions about the candidate’s viability with voters beyond the core base.

Also read: Yes, no, not guilty: Chatty Donald Trump spoke only 6 times during hearing

And that is why while the unprecedented legal drama in the US may help Trump in the Republican primaries, it may alienate independent and swing voters in a general election.

This is a scenario that may suit the Biden White House, which is happy to watch the Trump show from the sidelines for now. Democrats believe that Biden’s best chance to return to power in 2024 is if he is facing Trump. In the past four elections — the 2018 and 2022 midterms, and the 2020 presidential election and Georgia Senate run-off race — having Trump and his favoured candidates on the ballot hurt Republicans with moderate Republicans and independent voters.

But beyond the political and legal theatre, Trump’s day out is actually a story of the state of US politics, both in terms of its strength and vulnerability. A district attorney can charge a former President who has to comply with the law. This is a testament to the rule of law. But the fact a potential crime makes the accused an even bigger symbol of hope among his constituents, and generates doubts about the entire justice system, illustrates the crisis of legitimacy confronting American institutions. Both sides are playing the game, but as January 6 showed and the indictment reveals, there is no longer a consensus on the rules of the game.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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