Dr. Amal Mudallali
During the 2016 presidential elections in the US, candidate Donald Trump’s confidence in his chances of winning was so high he believed he was invincible. He summed up that position by famously declaring during a campaign stop in Iowa: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue (in New York) and shoot someone, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
Seven years later, former president Trump rode in an SUV from his Fifth Avenue home in a “surreal” trip, as he described it, to the Manhattan Criminal Court to be arraigned, after his indictment by a grand jury on charges of paying hush money to an adult film actress, Stormy Daniels, on the eve of the 2016 elections. This was a historic day because Trump became the first-ever president, or former president, to be indicted on criminal charges. Trump was anything but overconfident in the pictures that were taken in the New York courtroom. Reports indicated that he was almost completely silent, only uttering the words “not guilty.” But this did not last long however. After his arraignment and after the indictment was unsealed in the courtroom – and he pleaded not guilty to 34 felony charges of falsifying business records – he left for his home in Florida. Once there, Trump’s overconfidence was again on full display.
In his Mar-a-Lago home at a big gathering of his family and supporters, Trump lashed out at the district attorney, the court system and the case against him. Defiant, he said the indictment was the latest in an “onslaught of fraudulent investigations,” the case was “fake” and was aimed at manipulating the 2024 elections. He said the charges “should be dropped immediately” because it was “massive election interference at a scale never seen before in our country, beginning with the radical left George Soros-backed prosecutor Alvin Braggs of New York.” He accused the judge in the case of bias: “I have a Trump-hating judge with a Trump-hating wife and family whose daughter worked for Kamala Harris (the US vice president).”
Trump’s main defense is based on his claim that this is a politically motivated case, that the district attorney and the Democrats are weaponizing the justice system against him, to prevent him from running in the 2024 elections. But it was clear from his speech after his court appearance that he was trying to use the election campaign and his supporters as the first line of defense against the charges. If he becomes the Republican nominee for president, he seems to believe that will protect him politically. By claiming to be a victim of a political “witch hunt” by the Democrats – as his supporters and even his Republican competitors are saying – he surely hopes this will keep him at the top of the Republican ticket.
A month ago and before the indictment, Trump looked like yesterday’s candidate. The Republican Party was moving on, and a new generation of candidates were emerging as a real threat to him. Many Republican leaders were calling on the party and its base to move beyond Trump. Then enter the indictment. The Republicans circled the wagons, and Trump’s victimhood brought him renewed support from all the wings of the party and the public at large. We witnessed a Trump revival among the Republicans, in addition to some sympathy from the general public. Almost every Republican in public office, and all his election campaign rivals, rushed to defend him and say that they considered the indictment politically motivated. Polls put him ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who was considered the new face of the Republican Party and the rising star among the party’s candidates. After the indictment his support among Republicans shot to a 26-point lead above DeSantis (57 percent to 31 percent), according to Axios.
In an NPR/PBS NewsHour poll, 8 in 10 Republicans had a favorable opinion of Trump, and three quarters thought he should be president again. But the picture was different with the American public where 6 in 10 overall said he should not be president. Among independents, the numbers were higher where two-thirds believed he should not be president. The Trump pump in the polls is predictable because he is perceived to be a victim of a politically motivated campaign. But his lead might not hold as the court case drags on and the expected three new legal cases against him move forward. These cases are considered more serious and perilous for the former president than the New York indictment.
In the first case, the Justice Department is investigating Trump’s role in the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when his supporters tried to prevent the confirmation of the election results. The second case is also related to the 2020 elections and Trump’s alleged efforts to overturn the results. Media reports after his arraignment in New York revealed that the Fulton County District Attorney in Georgia, Fani T. Willis, a Democrat, is expected to file charges against him accusing him of efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. The third case is related to an investigation by the Justice Department concerning the removal of government documents, many classified and some marked top secret, from the White House to Trump’s home in Florida. The New York court set Dec. 4 as the date for a pretrial hearing that Trump must attend in person. But in August when the primary season starts, Trump’s lawyers are expected to file their challenges. This filing will “coincide with the first Republican debate of the primary season,” as reported by the Washington Post.
The judicial system moves slowly which could put the schedules of the court and the presidential campaign on a similar timeline in 2024. The former president may be hoping that a trial in a politically charged environment like the election campaign could help him and energize his base. But this could also have the opposite impact on his chances of being the party’s nominee and winning the presidency. Trump’s support among the public is not high, and his base of 35 percent of the Republican electorate might propel him to the top of the party’s ticket, but it could end the GOP’s chances of winning the presidency. The American public could also be very tired of the Trump story by next summer, and people might have an aversion to electing an indicted politician to the highest post in the land.
Things could have turned out differently for Trump had he changed his style in politics. President Richard Nixon faced the Watergate scandal which forced him to resign in 1974 before he was impeached by Congress. Nixon could have faced criminal charges of obstruction of justice after he resigned but he was pardoned by President Gerald Ford out of concern for the “public interest.” One of the main factors that affected the decision to pardon Nixon was that the “prosecution would ‘aggravate’ the nation’s divisions.” Ford did not want to start his term amidst domestic turmoil. President Bill Clinton, who was accused of lying under oath about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, struck a deal with prosecutors in 2001, in which he accepted the suspension of his law license for five years in his home state of Arkansas.
This will not happen with Trump. His instinct, experts say, is not to concede the truth but to fight back. His wife Melania was quoted as saying that his “signature skill is to punch back 10 times harder.” This was Trump’s reaction during his impeachment trials, and it is his reaction in this new battle with the courts now. It is unlikely his cases will end up with deals being made.
The main argument for prosecution in the case of Trump is that of “the principle of equal justice,” especially because of the number and serious nature of the charges, particularly the Jan. 6 attack on Congress. No matter the outcome of Trump’s legal battles, one thing now being established is that in America, no one is above the law.