Somewhere amid all the drama surrounding Donald Trump’s meet up with the justice system yesterday must have been a moment of humility in which even Trump, who seems to believe that the sun and moon orbit about him, had to realize that he was not in charge.
Whatever moments of indignity there may be in a forced surrender and ignoble court processing, in an arraignment meant to underscore the seriousness of public criminal charges, even this monumental ego must have recognized a flicker or two of doubt before once again allowing his inflatable, bulbous image to puff up anew.
The grim courtroom image of a chastened former president at the defendant’s table stunned. So much for lock-her-up shouts that had marked his campaign against Hillary Clinton. Now it was him instead.
For once, Donald Trump was not in control of all that surrounds him. If even for a moment, a man who disdains rules, who insists on throwing others under the bus for anything he dislikes, who relies on his money for power and his power for reason to live must have wondered about his place in a world that thinks he is less than immortal.
The rest of us live with this sensed lack of control every day.
If our system of laws and justice have any lasting purpose beyond the slogans etched in marble buildings, it must be to impose a sense of reckoning and accountability.
Bravado, bluster, or even ridiculing denial by Trump, once we get through the pre-trial histrionics, Trump finally will find his future in the hands of jurors of ordinary New Yorkers – and out of his control, perhaps for the first time in his life.
As will be determined through presentation of evidence and argument, the time for control was before the various misdeeds under review proceeded – something now seemingly likely to play out in other courts as well in coming months.
The lack of control was clear in the unveiling of sealed charges – all “class E” felonies of falsifying business records, the lowest felony level, and outlining a conspiracy to undermine election laws over nine months.
Seated between his lawyers, Trump reportedly forcefully spoke “not guilty.”
Upon a guilty verdict, those felony charges could carry a four-year sentence each.
While Trump bays at radical leftists and Trump haters for his woes, the 34 charges underscore one under-repeated significance: Verdicts aside, it was Trump himself who was responsible for the events giving rise to criminal charges – something important that will ring through other cases that may follow.
It is a point that fails to stick in the minds of vocal Trump supporters who prefer to paint this sad moment only as politically tainted prosecution – seemingly without regard to whether these are the charges related to fraud and campaign finance violations, obstruction of justice or the full array of illegalities stemming from Jan. 6.
As expected, the charges grew out of hush payments to hide sexual contacts but to list those payments illegally as legal expenses on government documents. Not necessarily expected was that payments went to others besides Stormy Daniels. It was new information that the fraud charges were all deemed as felonies rather than misdemeanors that had to be boosted legally into felonies by connecting them to campaign finance violations and New York election law – described as a novel application of the law. The charges cite state tax violations as well, raising the seriousness level, and perhaps ameliorating the “novelty” of the district attorney’s approach.
Essentially, it was the cover-up – and violation of New York election laws.
As the charges describe, there was more considered a “scheme” than reflected by a single payment to Stormy Daniels, in effect, suggesting a pattern of fraudulent payments. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg said the initial payments were illegal by themselves, and the fraud was in seeking to bury the payments. He said the case was brought now because it took rigorous investigation to get to this point and that more evidence had emerged.
For all the talk of these charges being “political” or legally insignificant when compared with other pending violations in Georgia or Washington, these charges seemed legally serious. The legal talking heads suggested that the evidence must be deeper and wider than all the pre-indictment speculation and ridicule alike had suggested.
Can Trump Control His Reaction?
Where Trump did have control is in his reaction to the idea that he faces charges altogether – the area where he traditionally has showed the least amount of control.
It became clear that it was beyond even the day’s unusual nature that the court had to talk about Trump’s public reactions to the charges and the justice system.
Lawyers wrangled over Trump’s language, social media posts and inciting remarks outside of court that suggested “death and destruction” and violence against the judge, district attorney and potential jurors. Prosecutors want the judge to issue some kind of “protective order” about the handling of evidence in the case and hinted that they might revisit the idea of some kind of enforceable warnings about what Trump can and cannot say on the campaign trail if references to violence continue. Judge Juan Merchan told Trump, “Please refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest,” admonished the former president.
Trump’s lawyers said the former president is “upset and frustrated” and reacting with strong language.
Of course, the idea of Trump sticking closely to judicial guidelines about what he says about the case seems absurd – and we can expect there will be more conflict ahead.
Trump’s plan to immediate return to Mar-a-Lago for an instant campaign rally belied any desire to keep quiet. His campaign people were busily selling t-shirts with a fake mug shot (none was taken at the courthouse) proclaiming his innocence for fund-raising showed a certain disdain for the entire legal enterprise.
The next appearance is months off, with lots of time in between for motions to consider dismissing the case or moving the venue or challenging various pieces of evidence. Of course, that puts a trial smack in the middle of presidential politics season.
The conclusion on all sides is the difficulty in separating politics from the legalities. We knew that going into this arraignment, just as we knew that there would be at least some competing protests outside courtroom.
Nothing involving Donald Trump goes down easily.
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