Nemesis is looming large in Donald Trump’s rear-view mirror. Forget the doubts and misgivings over the strength of the hush money charges against him. After 50 years of breaking the rules, the law is finally coming for him.
When we look back at the hush money indictment, it will probably seem like a distraction from the real legal woes barrelling along the road towards Trump. It might be viewed as a bold attempt to make a crack in the dam; a history-making decision by a district attorney to charge an ex-US president that paved the way for subsequent indictments – legal blows that would confirm in the minds of floating voters and moderate Republicans that Trump should be behind bars, not in the Oval Office.
But neither description would really be true. The legal nightmare now enveloping him, and that may well go on to consume him, is simply the law taking its course.
In the malleable and corruptible parameters of his business and political lives, Trump has always done his own thing, etiquette and rules be damned. The confines dictated by manners, decency or even the US constitution have proven powerless to contain him, as they have other egotistical chancers like Boris Johnson.
The rules of the justice system are harder to subvert, however. He will be subject to the dictates of a judge. True, he’s already insulted New York Justice Juan Merchan. But Mechan can take that into account if Trump is found guilty, and he has the pleasure of sentencing him.
It’s a sign of the times when an ex-US president is accused of paying hush money to a porn star and orchestrating a criminal conspiracy to conceal it during the climax of a presidential election, only to have some observers dismiss the charges as trivial.
Is the hush money case as weak and contrived as Trump’s lawyers say it is? Opinion among legal pundits is mixed. “What the DA has produced so far is slim,” argues Richard Hasen, a UCLA law professor and election law expert in the Washington Post. “…I take that as a sign of weakness, not strength.”
Meanwhile Karen Friedman Agnifilo, a former Manhattan chief assistant district attorney, and Norman Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as counsel for House Democrats during Trump’s first impeachment, write in a New York Times op-ed that there is “nothing novel or weak” about the case.
Most experts agree that New York County district attorney Alvin Bragg’s chances will hinge on extra evidence that he has yet to reveal. But more serious – and straightforward – charges are approaching. Next up could be an indictment linked to the claim he tried to subvert the results of the 2020 election in the state of Georgia.
Trump will have a scrum of high-powered lawyers around him. But in the middle of that scrum will be a man who knows what really happened on 6 January 2021 (and also 4 and 5 January, days which some Washington commentators say may yield a smoking gun relating to Trump’s complicity in the Capitol riots). Trump is well aware of what he said and what it sounded like when he rang an election official in Georgia on 2 January and asked him to “find” 11,780 extra votes, before telling the said official he might be committing a criminal offence if he didn’t do as requested (oh, the irony).
Call it karma, nemesis or natural justice, but the law is catching with Donald Trump. The tycoon appears to think another stint in the Oval Office will protect him from prosecution. According to a report by Rolling Stone magazine in July, an associate of Trump claimed that “he says when [not if] he is president again, a new Republican administration will put a stop to the [Justice Department] investigation that he views as the Biden administration working to hit him with criminal charges — or even put him and his people in prison.”
But Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston, who has written three books on Trump and lectures at the College of Law at Syracuse University, detects some irony in these self-serving political ambitions. Johnston thinks as the former and now aspiring CEO of America, Trump’s profile is now too high for his transgressions to be ignored.
“I believed all the way along that once he started this push for the presidency instead of prosecutors being able to say he’s not an overblown, blowhard developer in New York. He would bring himself such attention that no longer could law enforcement look the other way,” he said this week.
A likely raft of serious changes will be horribly stressful and distracting for Trump as he prepares to fight next year’s primary contest to be the Republican candidate for 2024. Thanks to the glacial speed of New York court system and Trump’s tendency to push for delays in legal matters, experts predict the first trial date for the hush money payments won’t be until early next year, thus colliding with the presidential campaign. So too, would probable indictments over electoral interference, the Capitol insurrection and the hundreds of classified documents Trump stashed at his Florida residence Mar-o–Lago.
All this will weigh on Trump’s prospects, and repel vital, undecided voters. He is disliked even by many Republicans and Republicans in America are a minority party. Most Americans don’t want him in the White House again: the latest NPR poll found 61 per cent of respondents don’t want Trump to be president, including almost two-thirds of independents. He is unelectable.
On Trump’s 2024 presidential prospects, Anthony Scaramucci, former Trump attack dog-turned improbable voice of reason, says there was already “too much baggage attached to Trump for floating voters”. He even suggests there is a good chance Trump might pull out of the race to be the Republican candidate. Trump’s prospects of winning the nomination, presumably against Ron DeSantis, would have to be abysmal for that to happen. Trump still associates a return to the Oval Office as a chance, if not for legal redemption, then a degree of immunity.
Hence, his desperation to be re-elected. A pattern emerges. That other, shady property tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi, constantly sought the protection of high office before finally being convicted of tax fraud. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to tear his country apart by maintaining a coalition with Jewish supremacists, in order to evade prosecutors after him on corruption charges.
The strength of a democracy rests on its ability to apply the law equally to rich and poor.
In America’s case, with regard to Donald Trump, it might be half a century behind given his well-documented associations with convicted felons and mob associates like international drug trafficker Joseph Weichselbaum, his exploitation of illegal immigrant workers, some working without full pay, in the construction of Trump Tower (Trump denies knowing they were undocumented) and the racial discrimination practiced against his employees at Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, which saw it fined $200,000 in 1991.
In Atlantic City, one of the few known accusations of cheating by a casino occurred at one of Donald Trump’s gambling dens. He shook off any number of charges thanks to the bullying and stalling techniques taught to him by the evil McCarthy era lawyer Roy Cohn.
Now, 50 years after federal officials first accused Trump and his father of breaking laws that barred racial discrimination in apartment rentals, the legal system has its chance.
The number and scale of the charges racing towards Trump, amplified by the celebrity spotlight he’s always sought, look likely to be his undoing. The weight of the legal scandals will crush the remaining life out of his political ambitions, wreck any credibility he had left and may well land him in prison.
“A president cannot dismiss… cannot disobey the rulings of judges,” Johnston said in what might turn out to be a prophetic remark in 2016 book, The Making of Donald Trump. Following this week’s indictment: “Hopefully this is the beginning of a revival and renewal of American democracy”, he said. We shall see. But I’d say the prospects are good.