Court Battles

The Memo: Legal storms engulf Trump

Former President Trump is in the middle of two legal firestorms this week — and there looks to be plenty more trouble to come.

Trump has skated away from the jaws of peril before, both in his political life and in his business career. But the sheer accumulation of dangers now is a problem.

“I see the cumulative impact of all the different pieces in some ways being a numbers game,” said Jared Carter, a professor at the Vermont Law and Graduate School who specializes in constitutional law.  “You are just not going to win them all. I think there is a cumulative impact from a legal perspective, but even more so politically. This could be a political death by a thousand cuts.”

The political angle is salient because Trump has been edging closer to declaring a 2024 presidential candidacy. 

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) was among a group of supportive Republican lawmakers who had dinner with the former president on Tuesday evening. Banks later told Fox News that Trump had given the group the impression he had made up his mind on 2024 and “we are going to like his decision.”

But even as Trump’s supporters rally to his side, his growing legal jeopardy gives others in the GOP second thoughts. Behind the scenes, some wonder whether a nominee such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis could exhibit a Trump-like appeal without bringing the former president’s heavy baggage.

Trump’s Tuesday dinner with GOP House members came sandwiched between two huge developments: the FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on Monday, and the former president’s decision on Wednesday to plead the Fifth Amendment during a deposition in a civil probe headed by New York state Attorney General Letitia James (D).

Trump is encircled by at least three other areas of legal danger. A probe in Georgia is looking at whether he and his allies broke laws in attempting to overturn the election results in that state. A federal grand jury is investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. And the Manhattan district attorney’s office has also been conducting a criminal probe.

The last of those would appear to be the least dangerous for Trump. It is perceived to be petering out after two prosecutors resigned back in February.

But ranking the peril from the other investigations is a complicated matter.

By some measures, the probe in Georgia could be as serious as any other, though it has got less national publicity.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (D) has been investigating whether Team Trump’s efforts amounted to “solicitation of election fraud,” among other offenses. 

Presumably helping make her case is the now-infamous phone conversation on Jan. 2, 2021, in which Trump was recorded urging Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn President Biden’s victory. Raffensperger, a Republican, resisted Trump.

However, Willis suffered a self-inflicted setback last month when a judge blasted her for hosting a fundraiser for a Georgia Democrat running against one of the potential targets of her investigation.

“It’s a ‘What are you thinking?’ moment,” Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney said. “The optics are horrific.”

There are other complications in assessing where Trump faces the gravest dangers.

“To say one thing is more perilous than the other is hard,” said Michael Zeldin, a former Department of Justice attorney who is also a well-known legal commentator. 

“Georgia seems the most straightforward on the question of whether or not [Trump] endeavored to interfere in the election. But if you factor in the prospective jury pool in Georgia, then gaining a conviction against this political figure may be very much more complicated. 

“Conversely, the Jan. 6 events may seem the more complex, but it’s the flip side of Georgia — the jury pool in D.C. would appear to be much more favorable to a prosecution, because he is not very popular in the District of Columbia.”

The picture is further complicated because so much is going on beyond the public gaze. 

The FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, for example, appears to have been conducted in search of classified materials. But what exactly was sought remains unknown — as does whether it was found.

The Department of Justice probe into Jan. 6 has had none of the public fanfare of the House select committee hearings on the same topic. 

But actions that have been reported, such as the grand jury receiving testimony from former Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short or a subpoena being issued to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, underline the gravity of the matter.

The civil probe being led by James is, by its nature, less serious in that it cannot result in incarceration. 

But Trump’s furious outbursts against the New York state attorney general betray some worry. In a Wednesday statement, Trump blasted James as a “failed politician who has intentionally colluded with others to carry out this phony years-long crusade.”

The former president’s decision to take the Fifth in the James probe carries risks, too. In a civil matter, unlike a criminal case, a jury can draw adverse inferences from a person choosing to invoke the right to avoid self-incrimination.

“You can make a big point to a jury about that,” said Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant attorney general. “You can present a very forceful piece of evidence and then say, ‘And what did Mr. Trump say about all this?’”

There are still enormous unknowns in all the probes Trump faces.

But this week has at least demonstrated that the tide of trouble is rising higher.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags 2020 presidential election Donald Trump FBI Georgia Jim Banks Mar-a-Lago FBI raid New York
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