Ever since Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg indicted Donald Trump on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, Trump has responded by attacking Bragg as well as the district attorney’s wife; Juan Merchan, the judge presiding over the case; and the Biden administration, all while exhorting his supporters—some of whom attempted to violently overthrow the government—to rally to his defense again.
In other words, Trump has chosen to fight the charges against him like a lawless thug.
It’s tempting to allow ourselves to feel inured to Trump’s authoritarian antics, but we should never lose our ability to recoil at what he’s doing. Trump isn’t attacking the law; he’s attacking the rule of law. Instead of availing himself of the process afforded to every citizen who is accused of a crime, he’s calling for Bragg’s arrest. Instead of using his overwhelming resources to fight the charges, he’s using his platform—and an endless supply of free media coverage—to spread lies and misinformation about the entire justice system.
Trump’s strategy stands out because he is doing this by choice. He has perfectly legitimate legal defenses he could rely on.
Even so, the fact that Trump has defenses doesn’t mean Bragg was wrong to bring the case. I don’t know anybody who is not a grifter or a cultist who reasonably thinks Trump is innocent of these charges. We know he paid actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 in hush money to cover up an alleged affair; we know he lied about it; and, if we believe his former attorney Michael Cohen—who has already gone to prison in connection with this matter—we know that Trump improperly coded those payments as legal expenses. That’s a crime, albeit a misdemeanor, and with the right documentation, Bragg should easily be able to prove Trump’s guilt.
But that’s far from the end of the legal story. To make these crimes felonies, as Bragg claims they are, the prosecution needs to show that Trump not only falsified these records, but did so with the intent to cover up some other, more serious crime. Bragg’s theory is that Trump falsified the documents in furtherance of campaign finance violations and tax evasion. He also accuses Trump of engaging in a “catch and kill” conspiracy with the National Enquirer and its former publisher, David Pecker, in a long-term scheme to suppress harmful stories about Trump during his 2016 run for the presidency, which would also be a campaign finance violation.
All of that might be true, but the astute reader will note that Trump hasn’t been charged with campaign finance violations, or tax evasion, or conspiracy. Trump can reasonably argue that he simply kept sloppy books, that he had no intent to defraud, and that if he was involved in any of these more serious crimes, surely someone would have charged him with it by now, including Bragg’s own office. He can further argue that these charges are time-barred: The statute of limitations on filing false business records is five years, and the allegations against Trump mainly concern 2017 records.
I’m not saying that Trump is going to win. I’m saying that this is how the process is supposed to work: A person is charged with a crime, they present a defense, we have a trial, and a jury renders a verdict. This is a process that has been good enough for everybody from former vice presidential candidate John Edwards (who was charged with basically the same crime as Trump and acquitted) to Gwyneth Paltrow. But Trump, apparently, doesn’t have the same strength and toughness as Paltrow. He is afraid to justify his actions in a court of law. A normal politician might welcome the opportunity to beat back ticky-tacky bookkeeping charges in a public hearing. But Trump would rather threaten violence outside of a courthouse than make a reasonable argument inside of one, even when he has reasonable arguments to make.
If he didn’t commit these crimes, Trump should beat the charges. If Bragg’s case is weak or on shaky legal ground, Trump should beat the charges. And if Trump doesn’t think he can beat these charges, he should plead guilty and pay a fine.
That would all be normal. Making excuses for Trump to do anything else plays into his authoritarian narrative and places him where he least deserves to be: above the law.