Sunday, April 28, 2024

The first of Trump's much avoided criminal trials is finally underway in New York City

The former president refers to the four prosecutions he faces as “witch hunts” motivated by partisanship and part of a nefarious scheme to keep him from returning to the White House. opined the editorial board of The New York Times. Donald Trump has repeated this narrative even though the prosecutions have been brought by different prosecutors around the country, and even though different grand juries, each composed of a random selection of regular citizens in different states, handed up indictments that now total 88 felony charges against him.

In the weeks leading up to the start of this trial, Mr. Trump has argued, dishonestly, that the judge and the prosecutor have treated him unfairly, and that it will be impossible for him to get a fair trial in Manhattan because New Yorkers are biased against him. But the opening days of the trial, devoted to jury selection, have already demonstrated the great care and respect with which everyone involved in the trial, except for Mr. Trump, has treated the process. Joshua Steinglass, a member of the office of the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, told potential jurors on Tuesday that the case “has nothing to do with personal politics.”

“We don’t suggest you need to have been living under a rock for the last eight years, or the last 30 years,” he said. “We don’t expect you not to have heard about this, or not to have discussed this case with friends. What we do need is for you to keep an open mind.”

Dozens of potential jurors took those instructions seriously and admitted they could not be impartial. One man was excused from service after telling the judge that it was “going to be hard for me to be impartial,” since many of his family members and friends were Republicans. Justice Juan Merchan, the judge overseeing the trial, excused him, as other potential jurors stepped up. So far, seven jurors have been seated. At least two potential jurors were dismissed by the judge because of social media posts.

If anything, Justice Merchan has exhibited an extra degree of tolerance for Mr. Trump’s strategy of systematically attacking the legitimacy of the courts and court officials through repeated verbal outbursts and countless legal motions and other attempts to delay his trials. In the New York case, Mr. Trump received a short extension last month when federal prosecutors found a tranche of documents that had not been turned over to the defense team. In the week before the start of the trial, he filed three emergency appeals in three days, as The Times reported, including a civil action against the judge, which were quickly rejected by an appeals court.

The fact that he was able to have each of these motions fully considered is evidence of the justice system operating as it should, with deliberation and due process. Especially in criminal prosecutions, courts take the legal rights of litigants very seriously, to ensure that defendants receive fair trials. An appeals court is still considering Mr. Trump’s request to throw out a gag order that prevents him from verbally attacking witnesses, prosecutors or the judge’s family, but it will not delay the trial before the ruling. (Mr. Trump is not prevented from publicly criticizing the judge.)

In the other criminal cases against him, Mr. Trump has also been able to take full advantage of every legal protection available to him as a defendant.

He appealed his federal prosecution related to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol on the grounds that he enjoys absolute immunity for actions he took as president. This argument has been rejected by every judge to consider it. Still, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal later this month, delaying the start of his trial in that case indefinitely, and possibly until after the election. While the Supreme Court weighs his immunity claim, the trial judge in the federal Jan. 6 case, Tanya Chutkan, put the proceedings on hold. In the other federal prosecution, on charges of illegally withholding highly classified national-security documents, Mr. Trump has had numerous favorable rulings from the judge handling that case.

The election-interference case out of Georgia was delayed by an extensive hearing on a possible conflict of interest for the lead prosecutor, Fani Willis, who had been in a romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, an outside prosecutor she hired to lead the case. After taking testimony from a series of witnesses, the judge decided Ms. Willis could remain on the case, but not with Mr. Wade. (Mr. Wade ultimately withdrew.) Mr. Trump appealed that decision, which the Georgia Court of Appeals is now considering.

The ability to file such appeals, successful or not, is essential to how the law functions in the United States. Despite having benefited from its protections, to Mr. Trump, the rule of law is nothing more than an obstacle to be overcome, an instrument of power to use at will.

Mr. Trump’s vision of an American legal system that protects his interests goes beyond his trial, of course, and extends in particular to the Justice Department. He has been explicit about his desire, if elected in November, to bring the Justice Department more fully under his control, to use it to protect his friends and, more important, punish his enemies. As president, Mr. Trump had an unparalleled record of abusing presidential pardons, and if he is re-elected, he appears likely to order the Justice Department to drop the criminal cases against him or to try to pardon himself for potential crimes. To Mr. Trump, independent prosecutors and Justice Department officials are precisely the problem. They will say no to him when he wants to do things that are illegal or unconstitutional, choosing to be faithful to the Constitution rather than to him. This Mr. Trump cannot abide.

Mr. Trump has said he intends to find a prosecutor to “go after” Mr. Biden and his family, suggesting that he intends to pursue prosecution with little regard to evidence or facts. According to The Washington Post, he also wants to investigate figures in his administration whom he perceives as being disloyal to him, including John Kelly, his former chief of staff; William Barr, his former attorney general; and Gen. Mark Milley, the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Mr. Trump has separately suggested General Milley should be executed for treason.)

As Mr. Kelly told The Post, “There is no question in my mind he is going to go after people that have turned on him.”

Mr. Trump has also repeatedly said that his prosecution is like no other. In fact, there are numerous examples of politicians, of both parties, who faced prosecution, and in some cases were convicted, during their candidacies. The former Texas governor Rick Perry, a Republican, ran for president in 2016 while under indictment for abuse of power. (Those charges were later dismissed.) Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat of New Jersey, was indicted on federal bribery charges, and may run for re-election as an independent.

The former president is singular in one respect: As much as he accuses others of warping the justice system, he is the one who consistently demeans and disparages the role of the courts and the exercise of due process. The leaders of the Republican Party, echoing the views of Mr. Trump’s fervent base of followers, have fallen in line behind him, indicating that they will continue to support his candidacy even if he is a convicted felon.

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