The rap on Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is that he was in over his head, lurching and grasping to prosecute former president Donald Trump, and that the case would collapse in a New York minute.
Trump himself lit the fuse two weeks ago when he proclaimed he would be arrested. That set off a firestorm, of course.
No former president, and no former president who was again running to be elected, had ever been indicted in the history of the republic. (It is always all-spectacle-all-the-time with Trump. Not one impeachment, but two. Not just refusing to accept that he lost the 2020 election, but an attack on the Capitol too. Not just a trip to Manhattan to face the music, but nonstop slo-mo Skycams of the SUVs and the plane that were bigger TV than the police chase of O.J. Simpson on the LA freeways 30 years ago.) The frenzy engulfed all the commentary – especially the legal analysis and whether there was a true case for Trump to answer.
Bragg faced a real political and legal challenge. Was it really worth using the relatively small amount of political capital a Manhattan district attorney has to seek an indictment of Trump on business record and campaign finance machinations, when the “real” Trump crimes involved much more serious stuff? They include allegations that he criminally incited the insurrection of January 6 to prevent Congress from certifying the election of Joe Biden, allegations that Trump criminally pressured officials in Georgia to overturn the 2020 election results in that state, and allegations that Trump criminally mishandled classified documents and obstructed the attempts of government officials to retrieve presidential papers.
Is what Bragg is pursuing truly on a par with these other investigations that more surely go to the heart of the corruption of the bedrock of American democracy?
What Bragg proved was that this case is not a garden-variety fiddling with the books. Bragg made that clear in two sentences in the indictment and one sentence in his media conference:
“The defendant Donald J. Trump repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal criminal conduct that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election. From August 2015 to December 2017, the defendant orchestrated a scheme with others to influence the 2016 presidential election by identifying and purchasing negative information about him to suppress its publication and benefit the defendant’s electoral prospects.”
Addressing the media, Bragg said that under New York law it is a crime to “conspire to promote a candidacy by unlawful means. That is exactly what this case is about.”
In other words, says Bragg, Trump was criminally messing with the 2016 presidential election. Much bigger than bad bookkeeping.
In October 2016, after the shocking revelations of Trump’s trash-talking about women, his campaign staggered, with a real threat of losing to Hillary Clinton, who was not waging a commanding campaign. Many Republican leaders walked away from Trump. Another devastating revelation might have knocked him out. The Bragg indictment presents a credible case of an unlawful attempt to decisively affect the outcome of the presidential election.
It’s the same alleged MO in the 2020 campaign. Trump is vulnerable to being indicted for committing the same class of crimes in Georgia. (“I just want to find 11,780 votes!”)
Trump always wanted to leave Queens and make it in Manhattan. But not like this. Can Trump get a fair trial there? He has already floated the idea of moving the trial to Republican-friendly Staten Island. Jury selection will be very rigorous. It can be done. Does anyone seriously doubt that the multiple convictions of the rioters who attacked the Capitol did not get fair trials in Washington DC – the city so traumatised by the insurrection? Of course, they did.
It is not just New York jurors. The rest of the country will be influenced by the overall political environment as the 2024 campaign really gets under way.
Everyone is looking at Georgia, and whether Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis will bring charges for what Trump did to try to change the election result in that state. The same applies to Justice Department Special Counsel Jack Smith, who is investigating both Trump’s role in the insurrection and his handling of the classified documents he took with him when he left the White House, and whether Trump attempted to prevent their recovery by the responsible government agency.
If there are no more prosecutions of Trump forthcoming, if the Bragg indictment is an outlier, it will be harder to prove the case in court – and in the court of public opinion. Trump, as canny and cunning as ever, today has a lock on his base among Republican voters. He has successfully pressured Republican leaders in Congress to stand with him against the witch-hunt. He is the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination for the third time in a row. Trump predictably unloaded when he got back to Florida. Defiant forever.
He is dying to return as full-time president. But will he be a full-time defendant?