james debate
james debate

Sunday 2 April 2023

On March 30, 2023, a grand jury convened by the Manhattan District Attorney, unanimously voted to criminally indict the former President of the United States, Donald Trump. While the exact charges remain under seal, they are believed to include more than 30 fraud-related charges, including at least one (perhaps several) that rise to the level of a felony. It is a historic moment in American history, but to call it a shock would be untrue. Frankly, if anything about this surprises you, you just haven't been paying attention.

2020 2021 trump presidential legacy failure failed one single term president shame darkness embarrassment
This has been coming for a long time. Donald Trump's criminal investigations are numerous and it has been pretty clear for a while now that he would face some form of indictment eventually. The only question has been which investigation would get to him first. There is some irony to the fact that a man currently under investigation for Espionage Act violationselection interference in Georgia as well as the attempted Jan 6 coup d'etat would first be brought down by sleeping with a porn star, but as we will soon see, there are very real and serious crimes here, the facts of which have long been established in law. It is no surprise to see these charges lead the way.

It is expected that when the charges are revealed, they will include various fraud charges. It has been widely anticipated that these would include charges in relation to hush money payments Trump made during his first Presidential campaign to cover up an affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, but the most recent understanding is that the charges are broader than that and will cover additional dealings.

While the specific charges have not been officially detailed, there is a lot we can infer from publicly available information. Hush money payments are, themselves, not illegal. Misrepresenting their purpose in tax and business filings is illegal. This in itself would be a misdemeanor charge. What elevates this illegality to the level of felony is where the fraud has been perpetrated in the act of covering up another crime. In this case, the crime being covered up is believed to be some form of campaign finance violation, with these payments constituting a campaign contribution in kind that were either not properly disclosed or that exceeded the maximum contribution limits. Once the official charges are revealed, we will learn more.

From what we can tell, this investigation began with the Mueller Report (remember that guy?). Robert Mueller's report outlined ten instances in which Donald Trump may have criminally obstructed justice, but ultimately declined to indict on the basis that charges could not be brought against a sitting President. It was widely overlooked at the time amid this more dramatic headline, but Mueller also identified a number of other potential legal matters that were referred to other investigators. One of these matters related to potential wire fraud and FECA charges in relation to Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen, which were then referred to New York investigators. These charges mark the culmination of this line of investigation.

How Serious are the Charges?
Very serious. Financial crime may not be as dramatic or easily understandable as some of the other things for which Trump is being investigated, but they are significant crimes for which people go to jail.

How Likely is Trump to be Convicted?
Of course, no one can make any reasonable prediction on this without knowing what the charges are and what evidence exists. That being said, from the information available now, our starting presumption should be that it is quite likely.

There are a few reasons for thinking this. Firstly, this is a grand jury charge. Grand jury charges usually result in a successful conviction. The main reason being that in order to even make the indictment to begin with you need to convince a jury that there is a prosecutable case. Different juries may come to different conclusions, and the burden of proof is different, but unless significant new facts come to light it stands to reason that if one jury is convinced, another could also be convinced.

More directly on this case, however, is that many of these facts have already been established in law. Cohen was ultimately charged in relation to these same crimes in 2018 and found guilty. Even more damning for Trump is that in that 2018 Cohen indictment, Trump himself was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. At the time, more than 1,000 Federal prosecutors formally issued a statement that Trump would have been indicted had he not been protected by presidential immunity.

So it is pretty clear that as far back as 2018 prosecutors felt there was a case against Trump here. I, for one, have been expecting an indictment on this since the day Trump left office and have been mystified as to why it has not materialised until now. Many speculated that it may have been shifted aside in favour of the larger ongoing investigations. It turns out this was not the case.

There have been suggestions that the case is weak, or that other investigators passed on filing charges. This is demonstrably untrue. Mueller didn't pass on the case, he referred it to New York because he felt it was outside the purview of his investigation. The Manhattan DA's predecessor didn't pass on it (in fact he explicitly came out saying that he felt there was a prosecutable case), the investigation simply wasn't complete until now.

There have been suggestions that there is political motivation behind these charges. This also appears unlikely. The investigation, of course, began under Trump's own administration, who clearly held no bias against him. This DA has, notably, passed on bringing charges in other Trump investigations (the asset valuation investigation), for which he was heavily criticised, making clear that he is being selective in his cases rather than simply grasping at whatever he can get. Most clearly, this indictment was voted on by a grand jury, not by the DA. So even if he was a partisan hack it wouldn't matter, the jury ultimately decided that there was a prosecutable case.

So ignore the spin, ignore the revisionist history. These charges are serious, and there is every indication that the case is strong, valid, and will end poorly for the former President.

What is Trump's Potential Legal Exposure?
This is difficult to say without further detail on the charges. But if, as believed, they include felony fraud charges, these could result in a maximum sentence of 4 years in prison each. If there are misdemeanour charges, these could each also result in a maximum sentence of a year, with fines or community service also a possibility. 

The problem Trump faces is that there are believed to be more than 30 such charges. These add up. If Trump is convicted on all charges, he will likely face many years in prison. At his age, that could potentially be the rest of his life.

How Will This Affect Trump Politically?
This is a legal matter. As far as I'm concerned, politics shouldn't come into it at all and so this part of the discussion should not be relevant. That said, Donald Trump is a political figure, one who is currently running for President, so such questions are inevitable.

I can't believe I need to say this, but being criminally indicted will not benefit Donald Trump politically. Anyone who suggests otherwise is speaking a load of nonsense or trying to drum up outrage and clicks. These are the same people who were convinced Americans didn't care about Jan 6 and that Republicans would accordingly romp to a MAGA-fuelled tsunami in 2022 that never materialised. It's not reality.

First, the obvious, Americans in general do not sympathise with Donald Trump on this matter. A wide majority of Americans believe that Trump did wrong and that the investigations against him are fair. Trump himself has extraordinarily low favorability ratings with Americans at just 34%. Trump and the MAGA wing of the Republican party have fared poorly in recent elections, losing three election cycles in a row (2018, 2020 and 2022) as moderates flee in droves. His political influence only seems to be declining.

So even if his indictment does fire up support from the Trump base, his base alone does not appear to be enough to win a national election. The polling suggests that no one outside of his base is particularly sympathetic and it is difficult to imagine that changing. All the moderates who left Trump after Jan 6 aren't going to suddenly come back when he's been charged with mass fraud.

Then there is the practical impact of criminal indictment. If Trump is in the middle of a trial, or even in prison, that is going to reduce the amount of campaigning he can do. No more rallies, no live appearances. Anyone who thinks an effective modern Presidential campaign can be run from a prison cell clearly hasn't thought it through.

The Republican primary, however, will be interesting. Trump's wing still comprises a significant portion of the Republican voter base. So while their being fired up probably doesn't help Trump in a general election, I can see it potentially having an impact on the primary. Ultimately, though, I think this says more about the state of the Republican party than anything else. To be perfectly frank, if Trump's Republican rivals can't capitalise on such a gaping vulnerability, they're clearly in big trouble for 2024.

So despite what the right wing propagandists are telling you, despite what the media's outrage-mongers are saying to drive clicks, sometimes the obvious reality holds true. Being criminally indicted is bad for Donald Trump. To suggest otherwise is absurd.

What Happens Next?
The legal process can be long, this case is likely to drag out for a while yet, perhaps even beyond the 2024 election, but the future looks bleak for Donald Trump.

It looks even more bleak when you consider that this is just the first and, in the eyes of many, possibly the least substantial of Trump's legal exposures. It's entirely likely that Trump will be hit with further criminal charges in Georgia, or for Federal crimes, before this case is resolved.

For now, just appreciate what this moment represents. A man who has, for so long, evaded any manner of consequences for his actions, finally has gotten his comeuppance. Finally we have seen the proof that no one is above the law, no matter how powerful. I've seen a lot of sentiments reflecting on this as a dark, somber moment for the country. But I don't see it that way. This is an emphatic victory for America. This is a victory for democracy, the rule of law, and the fundamental values of fairness and equality on which the country is built.

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