It’s All About Trump’s Election Criminality
The details of the various investigations are complicated, but the thread connecting them is easy to understand.
BAD NEWS: WE ARE ABOUT to be subjected to many months, if not years, of Donald J. Trump legal drama—as if the fact that Trump is on his third presidential campaign in three straight cycles weren’t exhausting enough.
Here’s the good news: You don’t have to closely track the minutiae of the legal developments in each of the investigations to understand what it’s all about. It’s okay if they blur together in your mind. In fact, that might be helpful in seeing the big picture, the unprecedented nature of the threat Trump poses.
See, at the broadest level, the Manhattan district attorney’s indictment of Trump regards the same subject as the ongoing investigation by the Fulton County district attorney in Georgia and one of the investigations now being led by the special counsel in the Department of Justice. In fact, the case even strikes the same theme as the Mueller investigation and both of Trump’s impeachments.
What would that be? Election criminality. That’s the throughline of most of Trump’s corruption since 2016. He covered up hush money to his mistresses, made overtures to Russia “if you’re listening,” held up funding for Ukraine, put the squeeze on Georgia election officials to “find the votes,” and incited the January 6th insurrection all in pursuit of the same goal: to win presidential elections—and then, when he lost in 2020, to overturn the results.
Sweeping election criminality is the element that elevates Trump’s actions from tawdry scandals to weighty cases worthy of being brought to trial either in the courts or, via impeachment proceedings, in Congress.
Treating these investigations and indictments separately as unrelated incidents is necessary as a matter of law, but as a matter of politics, ethics, and public understanding, it diminishes how intentional Trump and his allies are when it comes to disrespecting the foundation of our democracy, our elections. None of these terrible events was a one-off; they are part of Trump’s established pattern of behavior. The investigations may be led by different prosecutors in New York, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., but they’re all seeking accountability for election-related schemes.
In a press release accompanying his historic indictment of a former U.S. president, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg stated that Trump “repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal crimes that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election.” What will make all of this even more historic is that Bragg probably won’t be the only prosecutor to say something like this. One has to expect that any indictment from Jack Smith, the special counsel in the Department of Justice, or from Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis would have similar language alleging other election crimes Trump committed.
Wait! you might say. Trump has said he was exonerated before and will say it again if he’s not convicted on all counts! This will only embolden him!
That’s a risk. What’s the bigger risk, though? Giving him a free pass for all time? Imposing a standard that someone running for president, someone who is president, and someone who used to be president can never be indicted for anything, ever?
Besides, if it feels like Trump hasn’t faced any real accountability for these schemes, that’s probably because the early opportunities to check him were forestalled by his Republican copartisans. Attorney General Bill Barr whitewashed the Mueller report and Republican senators twice declined to convict him after the House impeached him.
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Those Republicans in Washington don’t represent the majority of Americans, either. Trump loves to talk about how 74 million Americans voted for him in 2020. What he conveniently leaves out is that 81 million voted against him and elected Biden. The House January 6th Committee had no power to convict Trump but documented his actions and likely swayed public opinion about his responsibility for the insurrection ahead of the 2022 elections.
And only now, because the wheels of justice turn slowly, are the courts getting a say.
The judge overseeing the Manhattan case already had to warn Trump, in his very first courtroom appearance in the case, to “please refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest” or making statements to “jeopardize the rule of law.”
Hours later, Trump defied that warning and attacked the judge and his family as if he were any other political opponent. Unlike Trump’s other targets, however, the judge can gag Trump if he keeps mouthing off. And judges usually don’t tolerate death threats as well as, say, Vice President Mike Pence.
During Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns, it seemed like no one could, or would, do anything meaningful to stop his reckless behavior. Because Trump is being tried for election crimes as he runs for president again, 2024 could be different. And if he doesn’t change his ways? It’s easy to imagine him taking actions that will only increase his legal exposure—adding to the possible legal avenues for holding him to account.