Tuesday, Feb 27, 2024

Trump Indictment Helps Him Dominate the GOP Field

 

Two weeks after the unsealing of a 37-count federal criminal indictment which, if he is convicted, could send Donald Trump to prison for the rest of his life, the former president has further extended his already commanding 30-point lead over his closest rival for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. It has enabled Trump to continue dominating the daily headlines in the mainstream news media, depriving his opponents for the GOP nomination of the media attention they need to break out of the pack. Meanwhile, the angry reaction of the Republican voter base to Trump’s indictment has forced most of his GOP rivals to join him in condemning it as politically motivated.

The new accusations in the federal indictment have also failed to hurt Trump’s prospects for victory in the 2024 general election. According to the national polls published by Rasmussen Reports and Harvard-Harris after the indictment was released, Trump retained his prior 6 points lead over Joe Biden in a head-to-head matchup.

To the frustration of his enemies, Trump has once again demonstrated his unique ability to turn a development that would be disastrous for any normal candidate running for office to his political advantage. Furthermore, with two more investigations still in progress against him, in addition to the two upcoming criminal trials in New York City and South Florida, there appears to be no end in sight to his prolonged legal battles which have already drowned out the messages of his rivals for the GOP nomination almost entirely.

“Trump always gets all the coverage,” said a frustrated adviser to one of Trump’s GOP opponents. “This is what it’s like to run against Trump.”

The media circus began two weeks ago with Trump himself announcing and condemning the federal indictment several days in advance of the court date, forcing prosecutors to release its details before they wanted to. The wall-to-wall news coverage began with video clips of Trump’s private jet taking off for Miami from New York’s LaGuardia airport the day before his court date at a Miami courthouse. After entering a not-guilty plea in his documents case in a courtroom that was closed to photographers, Trump invited reporters and their TV cameras to join him for lunch at a famous restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana section before jetting back to his luxurious golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey to attend a fundraiser for his presidential campaign.

LONG SHOT RAMASWAMY PROMISES TRUMP A PRESIDENTIAL PARDON

The only other GOP candidate who was able to attract any positive news media attention during that period was self-made millionaire Vivek Ramaswamy. He told a press conference held on the sidelines of Trump’s arraignment in Miami that if elected, he would grant Trump a presidential pardon and challenged the other GOP candidates to do likewise.

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, taunted rival candidates. “What we did at Versailles restaurant and Bedminster shows that we can do this on our worst day better than they can on their best day,” he said.

Trump was also able to attract a lot of free coverage from the normally hostile mainstream TV networks and the front pages of the major newspapers, which felt obliged, despite themselves, to cover his response to the charges against him in the federal indictment.

Another Trump advisor told reporters said that the sequence of events again demonstrated his skill at manipulating the hostile mainstream media. “Trump just has this knack for understanding the moment,” the advisor said. “You’ve got to use your imagination, and it’s clear that Vivek was the only [other GOP] candidate with any imagination, because that was clever what he did down there, saying you know, ‘I’ll pardon Trump when I’m elected president,’ which no one thinks will happen, but now he’s put everybody else on notice. That’s what you do in politics.”

TRUMP’S LONG MEDIA SHADOW FRUSTRATES HIS GOP OPPONENTS

For the next several days, the rest of the large GOP presidential field was reduced mostly to answering reporters’ questions about Trump’s indictment, and given very little opportunity to talk about their own campaign or to criticize President Biden’s policies. Even though Trump was not physically there with them campaigning in the early caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, he dominated the candidates’ conversations with reporters who kept asking them the same question: “If you are elected president, would you pardon Trump?” The candidates kept trying to make a splash of their own, but for the most part, they were unable to get out of Trump’s long media shadow.

Black South Carolina senator and GOP presidential candidate Tim Scott managed to get his minute of prime-time fame when he got into a long-distance debate with former President Barack Obama, who accused Scott of giving America more credit than it deserved for providing opportunities for minority group members to succeed.

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also managed to get himself a substantial amount of free time from CNN for the purpose of trashing Trump’s record as president and his behavior since losing the 2020 presidential election.

Christie said that he was opposed to the Republican National Committee’s decision to force all of the 2024 GOP presidential contenders to commit themselves to support the eventual party nominee, as a condition for qualifying to appear in its first televised candidate debate on August 23. He repeatedly called Trump a “loser,” blaming him for the disappointing GOP performance in the last three national elections in 2018, 2020, and 2022.

Christie, who once had been a strong political supporter and personal friend of Trump, is now on a mission to destroy Trump’s candidacy, as Christie did to Senator Marco Rubio during the race for the 2016 GOP nomination. Christie has accused Trump of acting like “a petulant child when someone disagrees with him.” He also said that when Trump first became president, he overpraised the people he selected for key positions in his administration, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and then harshly criticized them after they left his team.

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley also managed to score some recent headlines, but they are unlikely to benefit her campaign because they amounted to a flip-flop on her attitude towards Trump’s indictment. Her initial reaction was to call Trump’s handling of his presidential documents “reckless,” but when the criticism of that statement from other Republicans got too loud, she quickly reversed her position and said that as president she would still be “inclined” to pardon Trump if he is convicted of federal charges.

TRUMP’S GOP SUPPORTERS ARE STICKING WITH HIM

The difficulty for Trump’s competitors is that no matter how many times they have condemned his mishandling of classified secrets, and the other charges against him in the federal indictment, his polling numbers have not fallen. In most cases the polls show Trump still supported by 50% or more of sampled Republican voters, leaving his newly announced rivals for the GOP nomination with little room to demonstrate their grassroots appeal.

After having watched him for the past seven years in the national political spotlight, almost all Republican voters have made up their minds about Trump, and their opinions are not likely to be changed at this point, even by the evidence in a federal criminal indictment. That is the main problem now facing his Republican opponents for the GOP nomination.

“It’s like they are challenging a sitting president, and in some ways, Donald Trump is a legitimate president in the minds of many Republican primary voters,” explained Christine Matthews, who served as a pollster for former Maryland GOP Governor Larry Hogan. “That could explain why there isn’t a bounce. It’s not a completely open field. And we’re considering all these new faces who are popping in, it’s like these are challengers to an incumbent.”

LOOKING FORWARD TO THE FIRST DEBATE ON AUGUST 23

In that kind of political environment, it is highly unlikely that any of Trump’s opponents for the GOP nomination will be able to make significant progress in the polls before the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) first televised debate on August 23. The debate will give Republican voters in the national TV audience their first chance to evaluate them directly against one another for the first time.

But it is yet not even certain that Trump will agree to participate in that debate. If Trump is still holding a 30-point lead over the rest of the field at that point, he might decide not to give his opponents the opportunity to confront him on the same platform.

Given that all of the candidates for the GOP nomination trailing Trump and DeSantis are currently polling in the single digits, even small gains take on a major significance for them. In order to qualify to participate in the August 23 debate, the RNC requires each candidate to show polling support from at least 1% of GOP voters plus the ability to attract support from a significant number of campaign donors.

If the RNC’s debate were to be held today, in addition to Trump and DeSantis, the qualified participants would be former Vice President Mike Pence, Haley, Scott, Ramaswamy, and Christie.

Several of the GOP candidates are now looking beyond the August 23 debate to the first real test of their popularity at the Iowa caucus, probably sometime in January, while Scott and Christie, in particular, hope to improve their standing by doing well in the traditional first-in-the-nation presidential primary election to be held at about the same time in New Hampshire.

WHY DEMOCRATS ARE QUIETLY NERVOUS

Meanwhile, many Democrat political strategists are quietly nervous about the resilience of Trump’s lead over Biden in head-to-head matchups since the ABC News-Washington Post poll, released on May 3, gave Trump a solid 6-point margin, shocking many Democrats out of their complacency.

In the two polls of a head-to-head Trump-Biden presidential rematch published since news of Trump’s federal indictment broke on June 8, there has been little or no significant change in Trump’s popularity compared to those taken before the indictment. In the widely followed RealClearPolitics national average of all polls released since the beginning of May, Trump also currently leads Biden by 2.4 points.

It is important to remember that Trump doesn’t need a popular vote majority in order to win the presidency in the Electoral College. In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by almost 3 million votes (48%-45.9%), but was able to defeat Clinton in the Electoral College by a substantial 306 to 232 margin.

In 2020, Biden won the popular vote by a 4.5 percent margin (7 million votes) over Donald Trump, but a shift of a total of only 44,000 votes in the swing states of Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia would have enabled Trump to win a second term in the Electoral College.

Despite his narrow loss in 2020, the favorable distribution of Trump’s vote vis-à-vis the Electoral College helps to explain why he is still, by far, the leader in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, and the slight favorite over Biden, even among some Democrat political strategists, in the 2024 general election.

BIDEN CAN’T DEFEND HIS RECORD

Conservative columnist Liz Peek, in an op-ed published by The Hill, writes that Democrats desperately want Trump to be the GOP’s 2024 presidential candidate, because otherwise “Biden will have to defend his record (and his age) to Americans. The president’s dismal approval ratings on every major issue — the economy, foreign policy, immigration, crime — show he cannot do that and win, and they know it.

“Instead,” she writes, “Biden and his colleagues want Trump to be the GOP nominee in 2024 and to go down in flames. They are convinced the former president cannot win in the general election,” despite the current national poll averages showing Trump holding a small but consistent lead over Biden in a rerun of the 2020 election.

“Does Trump carry huge baggage? Absolutely,” Peek declares. “Just like Hillary Clinton in 2016, Trump’s ‘unfavorables,’ currently at 55 percent, could undermine his chances. . .

Unless, of course, their rivals are carrying the same baggage.”

She points out that, “Biden today has exactly the same ‘favorable/unfavorable’ ratings as Trump. In 2020, Biden was considered by most Americans to be honest and moderate. He was also viewed as a trusted voice on foreign affairs. Neither is true now. More than two years into his first term, the [Democrat] narrative that Trump is the less capable and trustworthy defender of our country rings hollow,” Peek concludes.

She also notes that while some Republicans “are not confident the former president can lead the party to victory. . . at the moment, it is hard to see anyone [of the 13 GOP candidates] emerging to challenge Trump’s lead.”

Peek argues that while “a majority of voters think the indictment of Trump is bad for America, many [others] are appalled by the extremism of the Biden White House. Most of the nation is not on board with Biden’s gender [identity] program. . . They disagree with Biden’s assertion that the USA is systemically racist and has policies that favor one racial group over another…”

SIGNS OF A GROWING CONSERVATIVE VOTER BACKLASH

She sees the signs of a conservative voter backlash popping up all over the country. They include parent protests at local school board meetings, buyer boycotts against the Target department stores and Bud Light beer for trying to make a quick profit by exploiting gender identity politics, as well as a growing investor rebellion against the anti-capitalist ESG-inspired policies that have been adopted by large, liberal-run corporations and financial institutions.

“Biden’s extremism includes allowing more than 5 million people to enter the country illegally since he took office, abandoning long-standing immigration policy. His administration has also gone overboard in pursuing a climate agenda that includes stark intrusions into the lives of Americans. People like their gas stoves and enjoy driving gasoline-powered automobiles. . .

“Democrats always go too far. . .” she stated.

“Voters are angry. . .  about the weaponization of our Department of Justice, the seemingly unequal application of our laws, and the extremism of the Biden White House. Ultimately, the greatest possible act of political defiance in our country’s history would be the reelection of Trump. . . It is conceivable that voters are so fed up that they will defy the elites, the media, and Hollywood, and vote for Trump. It could happen,” Peek concludes.

DEMOCRATS NEED TO RECOGNIZE THEIR POLICY FAILURES

New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Christoff, a self-described progressive, has issued a warning to his fellow liberals who have come to believe in the self-righteousness of their political principles. He is calling upon them to face the unpleasant fact that the voters are likely to hold Democrat elected officials accountable for the abject failures of their liberal governing policies.

“Consider that three of the four states with the highest rates of unsheltered homelessness — California, Hawaii, and Oregon — are all run by Democrats,” Christoff wrote. “Look up and down the cities of the West Coast — where liberals reign — and it’s impossible to celebrate a triumph of good governance. We may have great values, but we don’t always have great outcomes.

“During the Covid pandemic, we mocked Republicans for ignoring science and resisting vaccinations. Fair enough. But Democrats too often also ignored science and kept schools closed longer than necessary, with devastating consequences for some of America’s most marginalized children. Some kids in Republican states won’t be able to read books in school libraries about gender or race because of right-wing censorship, and some kids in Democratic states won’t be able to read them because they fell behind or dropped out during school closings.

“The left’s self-righteousness has also resulted in streaks of intolerance, such as blocking conservative speakers on university campuses and perpetuating stereotypes of evangelical Christians (one of the few groups on many campuses it’s considered acceptable to mock).

“Overzealous liberals regularly undermine their own causes. Democrats’ calls for defunding the police may have helped Republicans win seats in the House and Senate.

“The way to win elections is to engage voters rather than wag fingers at them,” Christoff writes, recalling how Hillary Clinton alienated traditionally Democrat working-class voters and lost the 2016 election to Trump by labeling them all as “deplorables.”

UNDERESTIMATING TRUMP’S INSTINCTS FOR POLITICAL SURVIVAL

Another New York Times liberal columnist, Maureen Dowd, also warns her readers against underestimating Trump’s instincts for political survival and his ability to strike back at his critics “with no sense of shame or boundaries or restraint.”

She also recalls many times over the past seven years when she had assumed that Trump’s popularity with American voters had finally been destroyed by the revelations of one scandal or another, both true and untrue. But after having been wrong so many times, Dowd writes, “I have learned to wait and see whether Trump will preposterously get away with things. He has spent his entire life cutting corners and dancing on the edge of legal.” As a result, she is not willing to dismiss the possibility that he can do it again, using the political energy he may get from his federal indictment to fuel “his return to the Oval Office.”

Similarly, President Obama’s former political advisor, David Axelrod wrote in The Atlantic, “Over time, Trump has worked to discredit and demean any institution that raises inconvenient truths or seeks to hold him accountable for his actions — not just media, but law enforcement and the election system itself.”

THE PARTISAN REVERSAL OF TRUST IN GOVERNMENT

One of the ironies of today’s extreme political polarization of the American electorate is a dramatic reversal in the level of trust in government. Traditionally, most people who had thought of themselves as conservatives were staunch supporters of those government institutions whose mission is to support the rule of law and the administration of justice in American society, such as the Department of Justice, the FBI, local and state police departments, the court systems and other recognized organizations devoted to upholding law and order under the U.S. Constitution. Liberals, on the other hand, tended to be suspicious and distrustful of these institutions because of their potential power over our lives.

But because of the political corruption and influence which has overtaken these institutions in recent years, especially since the 2016 presidential election, the dominant attitudes of conservatives and liberals were dramatically reversed. Conservatives lost their implicit level of trust in these government institutions, and increasingly saw them as a growing threat to their constitutionally guaranteed personal liberties, while liberals sought to gain total control over them in order to impose their moral standards and goals on all of American society.

As a result, according to conservative commentator Roger Kimball, “The world seems increasingly divided between those who continue to have confidence in our institutions and those who, finding them bankrupt, have withdrawn their support.

“This dividing line shows up in many different ways. One prominent fissure shows itself in the commentary on Jack Smith’s indictment [of Donald Trump]. On one side, there are commentators — including such eminences as former Attorney General William Barr — who tell us that Trump’s holding on to those documents at Mar-a-Lago was heinous. On the other side are those (like me) who think it was no big deal. . .

“There has been a lot of talk about how the United States is more and more subject to a ‘two-tier’ system of justice, which is to say a system of injustice. It pains me to acknowledge it, but it is true,” Kimble writes, and it now appears that there is no turning back.

HOW AMERICA HAS CHANGED

According to Brandon McGinley, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “The United States is now a country where federal law enforcement agencies have targeted and indicted a former president who is also the leading challenger to the current president. For the Department of Justice to intervene in politics in this way and at this time is an extraordinary act that requires extraordinarily good reasons. And I fear that, from the highest echelons of Washington to cable news analysts to everyday citizens, the extreme emotions evoked by Donald Trump have blinded us to the perilous precedent it sets.

“If an everyday government employee had absconded with several dozen sensitive documents, then arrogantly and clumsily tried to hide some of them, wouldn’t he have been indicted, and possibly sent to jail for several years?

“Yes,” McGinley answers.” But presidents are different. They have the responsibilities — and the protections — of the Presidential Records Act. The president is elected by the people in part to have final authority over the execution of federal law.

THE DAMAGING PRECEDENT SET BY TRUMP’S PROSECUTION

“The question, therefore,” according to McGinley, “isn’t whether Donald Trump broke the law, but whether he broke the law in such a way that it’s worth creating such a potent precedent of DOJ intervention in politics.”

It is also clear that, by his stubborn refusal to turn over the documents requested when the National Archives first asked him for them, Mr. Trump made his legal situation far worse, making it more difficult for a jury in a criminal trial to give him the benefit of the doubt. McGinley also notes that, while it does appear that Trump’s prosecutors were politically motivated, he didn’t have to make it so easy for them to set him up for a criminal trial and conviction.

But that is not McGinley’s main worry. His greatest fear is that “the most enduring damage Mr. Trump does to American institutions isn’t from his actions, but from the legal and political precedents set by attempts [by his political enemies] to bring him to heel.” Or, to explain the problem using a medical analogy, “What if the immune response [to an infection] does more [long-term] damage [to the American body politic] than the [original] infection?”

THE GAPING HOLES IN THE FEDERAL CASE AGAINST TRUMP

Meanwhile, Will Scharf, a former assistant U.S. attorney writing for The Federalist conservative legal website, has identified six “serious concerns with the way [the Trump document] case is being framed in the public and with some aspects of the way the prosecution itself is being conducted.”

Scharf’s first concern is the conflict between Trump’s legal rights, under the Presidential Records Act (PRA) to retain and have access to the government documents he kept at Mar-a-Lago, and the requirement, under the terms of the 1917 Espionage Act, for special counsel Jack Smith to prove that Trump, was in “unauthorized possession” of them.

Scharf argues that if Trump really did believe that the presidential documents he took with him at the end of his term of office from the White House to Mar-a-Lago were his personal records, then, under the terms of the PRA, he did not violate the law by withholding them from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), even if some of those documents were classified. The determining factor under the law should be Trump’s state of mind at that time, in terms of how he viewed those documents, which will be almost impossible for the special counsel to prove at the criminal trial, “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Furthermore, to secure a conviction of Trump under the Espionage Act, the prosecution will also have to prove that the documents that he withheld contained national defense information which, according to the federal statute, “the possessor had reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.” Even if the withheld documents were classified as “Top Secret,” that would not meet the requirements for a violation of the Espionage Act, namely, proof that the disclosure of the documents would cause harm to the U.S. or benefit a foreign country.

Scharf is also deeply disturbed by the reported attempt by Jay Bratt, who is the head of the Counterintelligence Section of the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, to bribe Stanley Woodward, a highly respected defense lawyer for Trump’s co-defendant, Walt Nauta, with the offer of a judgeship if he could persuade his client to become a witness for the prosecution. In the same indictment that was filed against Trump, Nauta was accused of moving some of the documents at Mar-a-Lago on Trump’s orders, in an effort to hide them, and then lying about it to federal investigators. Woodward claims that Bratt told him that if he could get Nauta to give damaging testimony against Trump, it would win more favorable treatment for Woodward’s application for a seat on the bench of the DC Superior Court.

If true, any prosecutor making such an offer would be guilty of a major breach of his professional ethics as well as federal law, and the case against the defendant would be ruined.

PROSECUTORS ATTACKED THE LAWYER-CLIENT PRIVILEGE

Some of the most damaging evidence in the federal indictment against Trump comes from the notes of Evan Corcoran, one of Trump’s defense lawyers, recording the content of his conversations with the former president. Such evidence would normally be inadmissible in court because of the principle of attorney-client privilege. But in this case, prosecutors were able to convince the judge to admit such evidence based upon the crime-fraud exception, by accusing lawyer Corcoran of helping Trump to commit the crime of obstruction of justice.

Scharf expects that at Trump’s trial, his lawyers will try to get that evidence thrown out by demanding that prosecutors prove that Trump’s conversations with Corcoran amounted to him attempting to enlist his lawyer in a criminal obstruction scheme, rather than merely asking him for his professional legal advice.

Scharf also notes that it has long been Department of Justice (DOJ) policy to defer the criminal prosecutions of political candidates who are running for office until after their election is held, to avoid unfairly influencing the election’s outcome. Since Trump is a declared candidate in the 2024 presidential race, which has already begun, and there is no statute of limitations on his criminal case, special counsel Jack Smith should have held off on his indictment until after the November 2024 election. The fact that he did not only adds to the credibility of Trump’s accusation that the case against him is primarily politically motivated.

A POOR CHOICE FOR SPECIAL COUNSEL

Finally, Scharf questions Attorney General Merrick Garland’s choice of Jack Smith “to handle a controversial case against a former president, a case involving an aggressive, unprecedented use of the Espionage Act.”

Instead of picking a respected DOJ career prosecutor with a clean record and no prior political baggage, Garland picked Smith, who is best known in the legal community for his over-zealous handling of the 2014 federal bribery case against then-Virginia GOP Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife. Smith won the conviction, but it was then overturned on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion that was so critical of Smith’s handling of the case that the DOJ decided to drop the criminal charges against McDonnell rather than go to trial again.

Scharf is also not alone in questioning the motives behind Trump’s federal indictment. The Breitbart conservative news website reports that, according to a Harvard/Harris poll released last weekend, 55 percent of the registered voters surveyed believe that the indictment of former President Donald Trump was “politically motivated” versus 45 percent who believed it to be “valid.”

Similarly, 56 percent of those polled considered the indictment to be “interference by the Department of Justice in the 2024 elections,” while only 44 percent saw it as a “fair application of the law.”

The same Harvard/Harris poll found that 65 percent of those surveyed believe that Biden had also “mishandled” the classified material found in his office and home, 72 percent think that Hillary Clinton also did with the government emails she kept on her private server, and 69 percent said she “obstructed justice” by ordering more than 30,000 of them to be destroyed.

TRUMP IS A VICTIM OF SELECTIVE PROSECUTION

That is why 53 percent of those polled said that Trump is now a victim of “selective prosecution,” while 47 percent think the law is being applied evenly.

With regard to Trump’s guilt or innocence, 44 percent of those polled said they think he is “probably guilty … and should be convicted,” 30 percent think he “is probably innocent,” while another 26 percent said that even though he may be guilty, the criminal indictment should never have been pursued “because it is too political and interferes with the 2024 election.”

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