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Sex, Lies, and Democracy
Why Trump's Manhattan arraignment may be upstaged by something bigger
After weathering multiple investigations and being acquitted from two impeachments, Donald Trump was charged with 34 felonies on Apr. 4 in a hush-money case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. He pleaded not guilty. The allegations, from 2016, involve Trump covering up a $130,000 payment to his fixer, Michael Cohen, to silence a pornographic film star, Stormy Daniels, who claims she had an affair with Trump.
Despite being the first current or former president charged with a crime, there is a distinct possibility that the hush-money case will end up being a historical footnote. For starters, it will take a long time: the next hearing won't be until December. The case could end up being dropped or Trump could be acquitted, as legal observers question whether Trump can be charged with falsifying business records to affect an election and to deceive state tax authorities.
Trump being convicted and potentially sent to prison for the hush-money case is a distant possibility. However, there may be revelations from other inquiries that make this case seem as important as Marion Crane stealing the money in the plot of "Psycho." A grand jury in Georgia is investigating whether Trump and his allies broke the law in trying to pressure state officials to overturn the result of the 2020 election. Some parts of this scheme have been public: on a January 2, 2021 call, Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" votes for him to win the election and threatened him with a "criminal offense." Other parts of the investigation are new: according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the grand jury heard a call from Trump to a top state lawmaker pressuring him to call a special session to overturn the result. The jury foreperson said in several media interviews in February that the grand jury was recommending multiple indictments; she said it wasn't a "short list."
A second probe by the Justice Department headed by special counsel Jack Smith is about Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his conduct Jan. 6. The scope of this probe isn't exactly clear, but Smith has subpoenaed numerous election officials in 2020 swing states and former Vice President Mike Pence, who will not appeal a ruling forcing him to testify. Smith is also overseeing another investigation about Trump's mishandling of classified documents. Prosecutors haven't decided yet whether to bring charges in any of these cases.
These cases could be potentially more damaging than the hush-money case. Trump became progressively more brazen as his presidency went on and after every attempt to hold him accountable failed. During the 2016 election, Trump openly solicited Russian help to win, asking publicly for the hacking of Hillary Clinton's emails. He won the election. Then, Trump fired F.B.I. Director James Comey, which smacked of obstructing the Russia inquiry. A special counsel investigation by Robert Mueller did not reach a conclusion about possible obstruction of justice. In 2019, Trump solicited personal political favors from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in exchange for vital military aid. Trump was impeached and acquitted for the call. After losing the 2020 election fair and square, Trump lied and said the election was stolen and incited a riot on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Again, he was acquitted by the U.S. Senate after being impeached.
Hence, it feels peculiar that the first legal consequence for Trump is about something that was relatively minor in comparison to the crimes against democracy and before he was even president. Moreover, paying hush money or cheating on your spouse isn't illegal; it's the accounting of the payment that is potentially illegal. The other inquiries centered around Trump's anti-democratic behavior may prove more damaging to Trump's chances in 2024. A little after 7 a.m. on the morning following the Bragg charges, Trump posted in all-caps on Truth Social saying Republicans in Congress should "DEFUND" the Justice Department. He may already be sensing where the real threat comes from.
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