April 6, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Trump’s biggest problem? People already know he’s a cheater
This is not a court of law so much as a court of public opinion.
I don’t know anymore than you do about the legal strength or weakness of the criminal indictment against the criminal former president. What I know is what I read in the serious press. Some say it’s strong. Some say it’s weak.
I also know this: Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and his team of prosecutors are leaning into the accusation, long familiar to Donald Trump’s critics, that he cheated to win the 2016 presidential election.
This puts the defense on its heels. I don’t mean legally. Like I said, I don’t know anymore than you do about the legal strength or weakness of the indictment. I mean politically. In the face of the accusation that he cheated to win, the defense has to say no, that’s wrong. He didn’t.
But we know he did.
We know he cheated separate and apart from this week’s indictment. His campaign worked in correlation with a Kremlin operation overseen by Vladimir Putin to sabotage the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into foreign interference confirmed that Russian saboteurs poisoned the public square on Trump’s behalf. And we know that Trump knew the Russians were helping him.
We know Trump repeated the crime after entering the White House. He extorted Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s valiant president, into a conspiracy to sabotage the nascent campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden. He threatened to withhold critical funds, already appropriated by the Congress, in exchange for an official announcement of an investigation into corruption by Biden.
For that act of cheating, Trump was impeached.
We know he cheated in one final way. After losing in 2020, he broke the rules, as it were. To tighten his grip on presidential power, Trump mobilized an army of armed paramilitaries, with intimations of clemency after the fact, to sack and loot the United States Capitol in a violent but ultimately failed takeover of the United States government.
For that act of cheating, he was impeached again.
His party saved him from expulsion both times.
So even before we get to the 34 felony counts, we know allegations of cheating are eminently credible. He welcomed aid from a foreign leader. He straw-bossed another foreign leader. He attacked the seat of our government. Is this man the sort who’d fudge tax documents so payments to a sex worker looked like business expenses?
You know the answer.
The allegation is that he illegally suppressed information he believed would be damaging to his election prospects. Citing Bragg’s remarks, the Post said: “What Trump wanted to keep quiet included allegations he had engaged in a sexual dalliance with an adult-film actress and an affair with a Playboy model, and fathered a child out of wedlock.”
But the charges are narrower.
According to the Post, the criminal counts accuse “the former president of falsifying business records 34 times, as he wrote checks to his lawyer Michael Cohen to reimburse Cohen for $130,000 paid to actress Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election.”
The timing is politically important.
He reimbursed Cohen in 2017 – after he won the presidency.
Between the allegations and the specifics is a “gulf,” the Post said, that constitutes “the crux and challenge of the criminal case against Trump.” Some legal analysts told the Post that there’s more narrative here than fact and law. Some said Bragg’s legal theory is in search of a case.
I don’t doubt the legal experts. I’m no attorney.
But neither are jurors.
For normal people, the story of a presidential candidate who cheated to win, and then, on the strength of that initial crime, went on to cheat in even more profoundly criminal ways, well, that might feel right.
The indictment brings little news to light. The Post: “The descriptions of the tawdry stories dating to the 2016 campaign hold few new revelations — much of the detail outlined by Bragg emerged in years of news stories about Trump’s behavior and in Cohen’s own 2018 guilty plea for various crimes, including federal campaign finance violations.”
But it’s the familiarity that makes the story of a candidate who cheated so believable. In a sense, the prosecution doesn’t have to prove it, because so many people already believe it. That he cheated this time, by bribing Stormy Daniels and then passing off the bribe as a legal expense, might seem like a distinction without a difference.
I don’t doubt the legal experts. What do I know?
I’m sure Trump’s defense is going to wear down the prosecution’s 34 allegations, as well as the legal theory behind them. They are paid beaucoup bucks, after all. We can trust that they will find every exploitable hole of the case. Maybe he’ll get off. But it will cost him.
This is a former president we’re talking about. Trump is not a normal person. This is not a court of law so much as a court of public opinion.
In a sense, Bragg’s got him.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.