WASHINGTON, DC – Spare a thought today for President Joe Biden. Much as he would love Americans to be talking non-stop about his visit on Monday to the mid-west as part of his “Investing in America” tour, in reality his visit to an engine factory in the Minnesota city of Fridley was utterly eclipsed by his predecessor’s arrival at Trump Tower Manhattan.
Today will be no better. Biden’s afternoon meeting with his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology “to discuss their ongoing work” is not going to get a look-in. The White House knows that the entire week is now lost to former president Donald Trump. There is no way for his successor to break through.
As the circus rolled out of Mar-a-Lago on Monday afternoon, the country’s television networks cleared airtime to bring viewers coverage of the Trump motorcade as it made its way first along the streets of West Palm Beach in Florida, then – three hours later – weaved through the numbered avenues and streets of the Big Apple.
All of this is part of the former president’s determination to use his criminal indictment as a double-edged sword: first to claim he’s the victim of a politically motivated prosecution designed to derail his front-runner status in the race for the Republican party’s nomination, and secondly to grab the limelight and freeze out his rivals, including even Biden himself.
It could all have been so different. Rolling Stone magazine is reporting that Trump eschewed an offer to be arraigned via Zoom, opting instead for the high-profile walk into the courthouse today that will fuel the ongoing media frenzy. It’s not the “perp walk” – the prospect of which he was said to relish – but his Secret Service detail is reported to have put paid to that, along with any suggestion that the former leader of the free world might be handcuffed for his first date in front of a judge.
Trump’s legal team now includes a last-minute addition: Todd Blanche, a former federal prosecutor and former assistant US attorney in Manhattan, told colleagues on Monday the chance to represent the former President is “an opportunity I should not pass up”. He will now lead the attorneys grappling with an indictment said to consist of 34 charges relating to the $130,000 (£104,000) hush money payment made to adult movie actress Stormy Daniels in the final days of Trump’s 2016 election battle against Hillary Clinton.
The most serious counts are expected to relate to claims that Trump falsified business records to disguise the nature of the payment, and then provided those false explanations to the Federal Election Commission that monitors all electoral spending. If, as reported, the charges have all been elevated from misdemeanours – the low-level rap on the knuckles you might receive for running a red light – to felonies, Trump will be in a greater degree of legal jeopardy. Should he be convicted, he could face up to four years in jail, although as a first-time offender, a much lighter sentence would generally be expected.
The former President is described as being in trademark “combative” mode as he makes his first court appearance, and spent Monday night at Trump Tower putting the final touches to a televised address he plans to make back in Florida later on Tuesday. Given that Judge Juan Merchan has banned cameras from the arraignment, the appearance at Mar-a-Lago may be the most we see of Trump on the day of his indictment, and will offer him a fresh chance to control the narrative.
Those plans could run into difficulty if prosecutors ask the judge to impose a gag order on the former President in an effort to halt his outbursts over the criminal proceedings underway against him. On Monday night, Trump again fulminated about Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, calling on him to indict himself over leaks relating to the content of the indictment. “He MUST BE IMMEDITELY INDICTED,” raged Trump, adding for good measure condemnation of Bragg’s “Trump Hating wife”.
There is much talk of the history-making nature of the day. But, with three other investigations underway into Trump’s conduct, this could be America’s new normal. In Georgia, criminal charges relating to his alleged interference in the 2020 election could be brought against him within weeks. At the Department of Justice, two special prosecutors continue to investigate Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents, and his alleged instigation of the deadly riots on Capitol Hill two years ago.
Some legal practitioners fear the Manhattan District Attorney’s decision to file charges creates a dangerous precedent for all future American presidents. Trump’s former Attorney General William Barr told Fox News “now we have thousands of D.A.s around the country… any one of them can find federal candidates” to pursue legally, adding “this is a watershed moment, and I don’t think it’s going to end up good for the country”.
America is crossing a Rubicon today, and nobody can predict what kind of terrain the country will encounter on the other side of the river.