CRASHING & BURNING
Donald Trump — now a mere mortal and criminal defendant — faces justice: Act 1
Tuesday’s drama at a Manhattan criminal court produced something that is truly unprecedented in the US — a former president being treated pretty much like any other criminal defendant in the first of many court cases related to his behaviour during and after his term of office.
In ancient Greek mythology, it is a fatal flaw, most often the personality flaw of hubris — an overweening belief in one’s invulnerability, infallibility, and near-godlike status — that causes an otherwise heroic figure to crash and burn. Okay, let’s leave out any flavour of faux, manufactured heroism on the part of Donald Trump, but, regardless, his trajectory may now have started on its descent. Maybe.
“Yes, yes,” you might well say, “we’ve heard that story before.” But until now, virtually all of his stumbles and travails resulted from self-inflicted, appalling business decisions — who loses money running casinos? — or outrageous political gaffes and insults to public decorum. (It is also true he has left a vast congregation of contractors and subcontractors still holding unpaid invoices, as well as others broken into submission through a vigorous litigiousness that ultimately has worn out such claimants.)
Nevertheless, much of his gigantic public presence has been created precisely out of his now grown-up but still bad-boy-fraternity behaviour, which has often centred around a social life with C-list celebrities in New York City’s layer of shysters and the city’s demimonde. It seems he has lived by a code that espoused the view that all publicity was ultimately good publicity, unless, similar to WC Fields’ hoary old quip, it involved small children or dogs. (Trump has long expressed a view that he hates dogs — they drool on you.) But not this time, perhaps.
This time may, finally, be different. This time he is confronting a multiarmed assault from all three layers — local, state and federal — of the nation’s judicial system, cases arising in large part from his belief he was simply beyond the laws that pertain to the rest of us. Tuesday’s events took place in a Manhattan criminal court as he surrendered to law officers, was fingerprinted, filled out the appropriate forms, and (together with his squad of attorneys) heard 34 separate charges laid against him by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg. Trump, of course, pleaded “not guilty” to all of them.
If a mugshot was taken, it has not been released, although in truth, his face is one of the most famous on the planet and even if he made a run for it, he would be easy to spot, with or without his trusty tan in a tube.
Alone as his processing took place, a visibly downcast Donald Trump — the self-defined macher and master of the universe, exchanger of love letters with North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un and cheerleader for ICC criminally accused Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the often accused-of-being-a-gonif but not brought low, and an overeager golf course builder — was actually forced to open doors for himself to enter the processing area. Moreover, he was pushed this way and that with virtually no regard for his former exalted and self-inflated status. Just another would-be con.
Despite his often-expressed love of the police (except when they are defending the Capitol Building from a mob he inspired) Trump probably is not all that popular even with the court officers in Manhattan, and none of them seemed to be showing much deference towards him. He is, after all, a criminal defendant, just like so many others that have been processed in that same building over the decades.
Hush money payoffs
The charge sheet drawn up by the district attorney is like a wall made from interlocking Lego blocks. Its logic is that the hush money payoffs to adult film actress Stormy Daniels (and model Karen McDougal, and an apartment building doorman), by way of his former attorney Michael Cohen and tabloid publisher David Pecker, were meant to avoid discovery (thus making the payments crucial to be accomplished before the 2016 election).
Moreover, in arranging these payments, the Trump team violated legal financial reporting requirements (Bragg made a point of describing New York City as the world’s financial centre that cannot afford to have powerful people flouting its careful reporting rules) in an attempt to mask those payments as campaign contributions and spending, thus violating state laws on campaign financing and tax reporting, thereby raising relatively minor crimes to the level of actual criminal felonies. Oh, and by the way, this whole mess represented a felonious conspiracy as defined in law as well. Violations of federal campaign laws and regulations effectively just represented collateral damage — but still, serious damage — from the main crimes being charged by the district attorney.
In his post-arraignment news conference, Bragg explained the two predicates for his charge sheet, saying, “The first is New York state election law, which makes it a crime to conspire to promote a candidacy by unlawful means. I further indicated a number of unlawful means, including additional false statements, including statements that were planned to be made to tax authorities. I also noted the federal election law cap on contribution limits.”
After leaving New York City on Tuesday evening, Trump headed back to his Mar-a-Lago club residence for a speech, more like a whine and rant mashed together, in which he lambasted the judge, the district attorney and their respective families, and in addition to his usual creative reconstruction of history, again insisted that the whole thing is a hoax, a con, a witch-hunt, and a political charade to destroy the nation or Trump’s chances to win the 2024 nomination for presidential candidate — or both.
Some observers noted that this time, his speech was rather less enthusiastically delivered than some of his more virulent speeches, and, clocking in at 21 minutes, was much shorter than many of his public diatribes. Maybe he was just tired after all his exertions in Manhattan, now that he is a criminal defendant, or maybe some of the fight is being bled out of him.
All of this fulminating is counter to the judge’s instruction to the defendant not to make public speeches, remarks, or social media statements advocating public disorder and violence. You can almost hear some people egging him on, saying: “C’mon, Donald, do it again; do it. Ratchet it up so much the judge will be forced to issue a limited gag order to stop you from commenting any further on the case.” That would, of course, only make Trump preen in an effort to recapture the centre ring by portraying himself as the innocent victim of a heartless conspiracy.
Going forward, there will be an avalanche of pretrial motions by the defence to exclude this or that bit of evidence, to ask for the replacement of the judge whom Trump continues to insist is a “Trump-hating judge” with a “Trump-hating family,” and just maybe a change in venue on the grounds the defendant cannot possibly get a fair trial in a city where he used to boast he could shoot someone on Broadway and get away with it. As a result, it is unlikely the actual trial will even begin before December 2023 and might even only start in the middle of the Republican Party’s primaries to select its nomination for the presidential race in 2024.
Other dark clouds
But, if that happens, or even if it actually begins slightly earlier than that, this will not be the only dark cloud on Donald Trump’s horizon. These other challenges are more consequential and probably even easier to prove than this first case. First is the issue in Atlanta, Georgia, where Trump’s phone call to the state’s highest voting official was rather clearly an effort to encourage voter fraud, when he insisted (in a recorded conversation) that the official go find almost 11,000 more votes — somewhere, somehow — so that Trump could win that state’s electoral vote, and possibly tip the election for the presidency away from the actual winner.
Then there are the two investigations being carried out by the Department of Justice special counsel Jack Smith. The first of these concerns Trump’s role in encouraging the insurrection by a mob bent on taking over the Capitol Building and reversing the final certification of the election results — and doing physical harm to the then Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and the then Vice-President, Mike Pence. Pence had the ceremonial responsibility to confirm the electoral vote count and Trump had been insisting that Pence could somehow toss the election back to a disputed set of circumstances. The second is the matter of all those classified government documents that had to be clawed back from Trump’s lair in Florida, painfully and with a search warrant.
But beyond that threesome of potential charges, there are also some still ongoing investigations about a less than honest use of building valuations (inflating them) for the purpose of obtaining new loans for other projects — but then downward valuing those same properties in figuring out the Trump family’s tax obligations. That is not legal either.
This initial, unprecedented criminal proceeding against Trump has stirred the Republican presidential nomination pot in some unpredictable ways. If he beats this first set of charges, it may well supercharge Trump into pole position in the primaries, as if to say, “See, Trump is invulnerable and deserves his next nomination.” On the other hand, if he loses on this first trial, and understanding that there will be appeals and more, it may well give some courage to the others preparing their cases, almost as if to say, “The king is wounded; we can be brave and we should move forward to bring him down.”
In fact, some Republicans such as former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson (who has announced he is running for the nomination), are trying to say it is time to put all the chaos and tumult of Trump-world aside and move on to the real business of trying to wrest the presidency from Joe Biden. And all of this, of course, must go into the mix as Biden determines how he will pursue a second term, how he will negotiate with Republicans in Congress over all the measures that must be dealt with as part of actual government business, and even how he will respond to some of his critics on the left who want him to attack the Republicans while their would-be leader is leaving a blood spoor on the ground.
This is going to be a presidential campaign that will truly earn the epithet, “historic, one for the ages.” But, whether the country can survive it and the rancour that will be generated in the process is the biggest question of all. DM