The Trump Indictment: Making History in the Worst Possible Way
Below is my column in Fox.com on the Trump indictment. There is a report of 34 counts against former President Donald Trump, which may be count stacking based on individual payments or documents. We will have to wait to see. In the meantime, the prosecution came about in the most overtly political way from Bragg campaigning on charging Trump to a public pressure campaign to indict from his former lead prosecutor.
Here is the column:
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has finally made history. He has indicted former President Donald Trump as part of an investigation, possibly for hush money payments. We are all waiting to see the text of the indictment to confirm the basis for this unprecedented act. But history in this case — and in this country — is not on Bragg’s side.
The only crime that has been discussed in this case is an unprecedented attempt to revive a misdemeanor for falsifying business documents that expired years ago. If that is still the basis of Thursday’s indictment, Bragg could not have raised a weaker basis to prosecute a former president. If reports are accurate, he may attempt to “bootstrap” the misdemeanor into a felony (and longer statute of limitations) by alleging an effort to evade federal election charges.
While Trump will be the first former president indicted, he will not be the last if that is the standard for prosecution.
It is still hard to believe that Bragg would primarily proceed on such a basis. There have been no other crimes discussed over months, but we will have to wait to read the indictment to confirm the grounds.
What we do know is the checkered history leading to this moment.
The Justice Department itself declined to prosecute the federal election claim against Trump. There was ample reason to decline.
The Justice Department went down this road before and it did not go well. They tried to prosecute former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards on stronger grounds (which I also criticized) and failed. In that case, campaign officials and donors were directly involved in covering up an affair that produced a child.
At the time, Edwards’ wife was suffering from cancer. The prosecution still collapsed. The reason is that you need to show the sole purpose for paying hush money in such a scandal. For any married man, let alone a celebrity, there are various reasons to want to bury a sexual scandal.
For Trump, there was an upcoming election but he was also a married man allegedly involved in an affair with a porn star. He was also a television celebrity who is subject to the standard “morals clause” that’s triggered by criminal conduct or conduct that brings “public disrepute, scandal, or embarrassment.” These clauses are written broadly to protect the news organizations and their “brand.”
Various presidents from Warren Harding to Bill Clinton have been involved in efforts to hush up affairs. They also had different reasons for burying such scandals, including politics. However, scandals are messy matters with a complex set of motivations. Showing that Trump only acted with the future election in mind — rather than his current marriage or television contracts — is implausible. That was likely the same calculus made by the Justice Department.
That is also why the use of the “bootstrapping” theory as the primary charge would be an indictment of the prosecution and its own conduct. The office has already been tarnished by the conduct of the prosecutors who pushed this theory.
When Bragg initially balked at this theory and stopped the investigation, two prosecutors, Carey R. Dunne and Mark F. Pomerantz resigned from the Manhattan DA’s office. Pomerantz then did something that some of us view as a highly unprofessional and improper act. He published a book on the case against Trump — a person who was still under investigation and not charged, let alone convicted, of any crime.
It worked. Bragg ran on his pledge to bag Trump and Pomerantz ramped up the political base to demand an indictment for a crime. It really did not matter what that crime might be.
While other crimes have not been discussed in leaks or coverage for months, it is always possible that Bragg charged Trump on something other than the state/federal hybrid issue in his indictment. There could be other business or tax record charges linked to banks or taxes. Ironically, the bank and tax fraud issues were also a focus of the Justice Department, which again did not charge on those theories. Moreover, Bragg could face the same statute of limitation concerns on some of the issues previously investigated by the Justice Department.
Finally, Bragg could stack multiple falsification claims to ramp up the indictment. There are reports of 34 counts of business record falsification. But multiplying a flawed theory 34 times does not make it 34 times stronger. Serial repetition is no substitute for viable criminal charges.
Bragg could have something more than the anemic bootstrapping theory — and it would be more defensible. Conversely, if Bragg moves primarily on that theory, the Democrats are inviting a race to the bottom in political prosecutions. That is something that we have been able to largely avoid in this country.
Bragg had a choice to make. He cannot be the defender of the rule of law if he is using the legal process for political purposes. That is what would be involved in a formal accusation based largely on the bootstrap theory. The underlying misdemeanor could pale in comparison to the means being used to prosecute it.
We have already watched the unseemly display of Bragg’s former lead prosecutor in publishing a book and publicly calling for charges during an ongoing investigation. Proceeding solely on the bootstrap theory would be a singularly ignoble moment for the Manhattan District Attorney.
What is clear is that whatever comes out of that gate next week, it will not just be Trump who will face the judgment of history.
Reprinted with permission from JonathanTurley.org.