Trump Makes History – First Felony Trial Of An Ex-President

Heather Cox Richardson

For the first time in history, a former president is facing criminal prosecution. 

The case has been dubbed a “hush money” case by the media, but it is really a case about election interference. In 2016, shortly after the Access Hollywood tape in which then-candidate Trump boasted of sexually assaulting women became public, Trump allegedly falsified business records of the Trump Organization to hide payments to individuals who possessed damaging stories about him, especially about his behavior with women, before the election.

Then–Trump fixer Michael Cohen paid adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who alleged she had had an affair with Trump, $130,000 through a shell company. He also set up a $150,000 payment from the publisher of the National Enquirer to Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also claimed to have had an affair with Trump. That money would give the National Enquirerexclusive rights to the story, meaning they could decline to publish it and she could not take it elsewhere. This practice is known as “catch-and-kill.” 

Trump then allegedly falsified business records to reimburse Cohen for “legal expenses.” Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg has charged Trump with 34 counts of falsifying those records. The case might last as long as 8 weeks.

In many ways, this trial is a vindication of the rule of law. Despite his many attempts to delay it, a former president is facing accountability for his actions just as any American should.

The trial schedule reflected that standard practice. Presiding judge Juan Merchan set out the terms of the trial, covering what information the jury can hear about Trump and reminding Trump that, per the laws of New York, if he fails to appear in court as required, a warrant will be issued for his arrest. 

But as jury selection began today, it was also clear that this is no normal trial. The names of the jurors will not be released outside the courtroom out of concerns for their safety, underscoring the degree to which Trump has urged his supporters to violence. And the country is so deeply divided over Trump and his movement that more than half of the first batch of jurors were excused when they said they could not judge the case impartially. No jurors were chosen today.

Trump has used this case—like his others—to try to undermine the rule of law. Rarely arguing that he didn’t commit any of the offenses for which he was charged in four different cases—two civil, two criminal—he has insisted instead that he is being unfairly prosecuted. The Democrats have rigged the judicial system against him, he repeatedly claims, and enough of his loyalists have bought that idea that today some of them urged Trump supporters in the jury pool to undermine the rule of law by lying to get on the jury, then refusing to convict (a plea that observers noted sounded like jury tampering). 

Trump’s effort to signal that he remains disgusted by the charges against him continued today. New York Timesreporter Maggie Haberman noted that “[s]hortly before court adjourned for the day, Trump’s campaign sent out a fundraising email falsely claiming he had just stormed out of court.” But it was notable that only a few dozen of his supporters showed up at the court today, and they did not stay long. 

Trump has also refused to stop attacking the judge and other participants in the trial despite a gag order imposed by the judge. Today, even as prosecutors were asking Judge Merchan to find Trump in contempt for violating the gag order, Trump posted a video in which one of his allies attacked the judge’s wife as well as primary witness Michael Cohen. 

Judge Merchan has scheduled a hearing on potential violations of the gag order for the morning of April 23.

Trump is trying to undermine the rule of law not only out of apparent fear of the outcome of his trials, but also because his appearance in court is likely to hurt his popularity. Last month an Ipsos poll showed that 32% of respondents said a conviction in this case would make them less likely to support Trump for the presidency. And that is before we have heard any of the new evidence that various sources have said we will hear, and which, by the nature of the case, is likely to be sordid. 

Seeing Trump treated like any defendant is almost certain to damage his brand as a man who commands his surroundings. Today, Haberman noted: “One thing that is striking: Trump has used the previous court appearances in other cases to project an image of grandeur. That is hard to do in this dingy courtroom, which smells slightly off and where he is an island amid a sea of people.”

Further, the public nature of this trial will make it harder for Trump to present himself only through carefully curated appearances. Haberman also noted that Trump, who has repeatedly attacked President Joe Biden as “Sleepy Joe,” appeared to fall asleep during today’s proceedings. “Repeatedly, his head would fall down,” Haberman said. “He didn’t pay attention to a note his lawyer…passed him. His jaw kept falling on his chest and his mouth kept going slack.” (While Trump was nodding off in court, President Biden was meeting in the Oval Office with Prime Minister Mohammed Shyaa al-Sudani of the Republic of Iraq, and then with Prime Minister Petr Fiala of the Czech Republic.)

Outside of this case, Trump’s image as a wealthy man is also crumbling. Today was the day by which Trump’s lawyers needed to prove that the $175 million appeals bond he posted against the $454 million judgment in the fraud case would really secure the judgment. Late tonight, his lawyers filed their justification of the bond, insisting it was secure and saying there was no need for the hearing about it, scheduled for April 22. Legal analysts on social media immediately found errors in the document.

Trump’s lawyers also filed paperwork today with the Securities and Exchange Commission to issue more than 20 million more shares of common stock in the Trump Media & Technology Group. The price of the company’s stock has been dropping since the spike after the initial public offering of March 26. Upon today’s news it dropped another 18%. It has dropped 62% since public trading began. 

Although news from Manhattan took up most of the oxygen today, the Commerce Department also made a major announcement: through the CHIPS and Science Act it is investing up to $6.4 billion in a Samsung Electronics chip manufacturing and research cluster in Taylor, Texas. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the two proposed factories will create at least 17,000 construction and 4,500 manufacturing jobs.  

In addition to its historical significance, April 15 is also Tax Day. Biden reinstated the tradition of voluntarily releasing tax returns after Trump ended it, and today Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff all released their taxes, revealing that their salaries make up most of their income. 

Ken Thomas and Ashlea Ebeling of the Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump campaign did not answer questions about whether Trump would release his tax returns.

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