Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
No matter the charge, the defense is the same: Donald Trump is the victim of a vicious political vendetta.
By a quirk of fate, two of the most troublesome threats to the ex-President’s political viability and business legend unfolded almost simultaneously Thursday in two cities he once dominated. And he responded the way he always does, by going on the attack.
In New York City, prosecutors arraigned Trump’s financial right-hand man, Allen Weisselberg, on charges including grand larceny and tax fraud. And the Trump Organization itself was accused of a fraudulent multi-year scheme to avoid due taxes.
Back in Washington, meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi named those who will serve on a select committee on the January 6 US Capitol insurrection, which was incited by Trump in a bid to overturn his election defeat. In a poke in the eye to the former President, they include one of his mortal enemies, Wyoming’s Rep. Liz Cheney, one of the few Republicans to speak truth to his abuses of power surrounding last year’s election.
No recent former President has faced the kind of threat to his legacy, reputation and potentially even his fortune now being encountered by Trump. And the ferocity of his defense — faithful to his mantra of never giving an inch to his adversaries — suggests he plans to respond with the kind of all-consuming assault on America’s psyche that unfolded during his presidency.
The line from Trump world is that the former President is being targeted not for what he did but for who he is, a construct that has carried him through the Russia probe, two impeachments and numerous other political, personal and business scrapes.
“If the name of the company was something else, I don’t think these charges would have been brought,” said Alan Futerfas, an attorney for the Trump Organization.
The Trump Organization legal team largely avoided a point-by-point rebuttal of 15 grand jury counts alleging that Weisselberg — the organization’s chief financial officer — evaded taxes on $1.7 million in income and falsified documents in a 15-year scheme. The indictment said the activity allegedly involved other unnamed executives in a firm in which the Trump family itself holds all the top roles. Weisselberg and the Trump Organization both pleaded not guilty. The former President was not personally charged.
Another Trump organization attorney, Susan Necheles, was even more aggressive than Futerfas in alleging a corrupt political conspiracy against Trump.
“We will win this case, but this case should have never been brought,” Necheles told reporters outside the courtroom. “This is a political prosecution.”
Earlier, prosecutor Carey Dunne anticipated the counterattack that the case was rooted in partisan distaste for the former President.
“Politics has no role in the grand jury chamber, and I can assure your honor that it played no role here,” Dunne told the judge, according to a transcript of his remarks released by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
McCarthy plays politics card over January 6 probe
Back in Washington, the nature of the turmoil surrounding Trump was political and not legal.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has repudiated his earlier criticism of Trump over the mob attack on the Capitol by “Make American Great Again” supporters, insisted the real issue was malfeasance by Democrats.
“I regret the politics of Nancy Pelosi. For six months she played politics with this,” said the California Republican, who crushed a plan for an independent bipartisan commission on the attack co-written by one of his own GOP lawmakers.
There is an argument that Pelosi waited too long to agree to a compromise with Republican Rep. John Katko of New York on the makeup of a bipartisan panel. And there are obvious political upsides for Democrats in continuing to investigate Trump’s abuses of power, with midterm elections ahead.
But at the same time, the failure of the independent commission deprived the country of the kind of catharsis and historic marker that such panels have provided at moments of national tragedy, so there is a case to be made that a reckoning — over and above probes by regular congressional committees — was due. It is not all about politics.
The witch hunt defense
The complaint that any attempt to subject Trump to legal accountability is politically motivated is not a new refrain. Every time the former President is accused of wrongdoing, he and his acolytes rarely rebut the charges with any level of seriousness or specificity. And Trump himself never takes responsibility for his actions, but instead seeks to flood the zone with partisan confusion and misinformation.
When the Justice Department and the FBI, for instance, became suspicious about multiple contacts between Russia, a hostile foreign power meddling in the US election, and his 2016 campaign aides, Trump claimed he was the victim of a massive “witch hunt.” In his first impeachment, his Republican attack dogs complained about a politicized process while sidestepping allegations that he had tried to get Ukraine to launch an investigation into then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Trump’s second impeachment — after the most flagrant attack on the peaceful transfer of power in US history — was branded by Senate Republicans as a political plot to persecute an ex-President by anti-Trump zealots as he settled into private life.
And even Trump’s denials that he actually lost the last election are part of a sweeping and false narrative — rejected by multiple courts — that there was a vast Democratic Party conspiracy to deprive him of a second term in office.
“They used Covid in order to rig the election and in order to steal the election,” Trump said in a rally in Ohio last Saturday night.
Trump knows what he is doing. He built his political appeal on the idea that he was a spokesman for millions of Americans who had been rejected by the cozy elite club — just as the brazen billionaire was often mocked by Manhattan high society. This canny understanding of the politics of victimization helped a real estate tycoon from one of the most liberal cities in America, who flew in a personal airliner, bond with millions of working-class voters in the American heartland. Paradoxically, a new set of controversies might embolden Trump and help him refresh his appeal to his base, as he seeks to play the kingmaker in the midterm elections and teases another presidential run in 2024.
His frequent message to his supporters might be paraphrased as: They are not coming after me — they are coming after you. Or as the former President put it in a statement soon after Weisselberg left court, “Do people see the Radical Left prosecutors, and what they are trying to do to 75M +++ Voters and Patriots, for what it is?”
Politics don’t work in court
Although the Trump Organization’s legal team insisted that Weisselberg was being used by the former President’s enemies, the detailed indictment against him will require a staunch and formal legal defense. Political soundbites generally do not stand up in court — as the multiple rejected cases brought by Trump’s campaign legal team alleging election fraud in November demonstrate.
The Trump Organization’s lawyers did tip their hand as to one aspect of that defense, namely an argument that it is unprecedented to prosecute a tax case such as this as a criminal rather than a civil matter. Some legal experts said the practice is somewhat unusual given that this prosecution centers on rent-free apartments, car leases, school fees and other fringe benefits.
But Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general, told CNN’s Poppy Harlow that given the prominence of Weisselberg in the firm and the allegations of a scheme to defraud, the approach was in line with precedent. “This is spin and talking points that they prepared before, I think, they saw the indictment,” Litman said.
Two big questions were left unanswered by Thursday’s indictment.
The first is whether the robust indictment against Weisselberg may be designed to get him to cooperate with prosecutors in return for lesser charges — and potentially to testify against Trump family members. Weisselberg has so far refused to do so.
The second question is whether the unsealed indictment represents the full extent of the two-year investigations against Trump and his company or whether there is more to come for the ex-President.
Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen, who himself went to jail after pleading guilty to campaign finance and tax charges, said he could have scripted the “witch hunt” defense in advance.
“There is nothing that happened at the Trump Organization that did not go to Donald,” Cohen told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota.
“Whether it was the purchasing of paperclips or the payment of Allen Weisselberg’s grandchildren’s tuition. Every single thing went on Donald’s desk for signature.”
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