Sometimes a fire drill can reveal useful information about how people might react in the event of a real emergency. At around 7:30 A.M. on Saturday, March 18th, Donald Trump pulled an alarm when he told his followers on Truth Social that he expected to be arrested the following Tuesday. He was wrong—the week passed with nary a mug shot. Still, Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan District Attorney, is reportedly close to bringing an indictment against him, on charges related to a payment, in 2016, of a hundred and thirty thousand dollars to Stephanie Clifford, the adult-film actor known as Stormy Daniels. And Trump’s post did set off a scramble.
Just after 11 A.M. that Saturday, Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker of the House, denounced the anticipated indictment on both Twitter and Truth Social, calling it an “outrageous abuse of power.” He said that he was “directing relevant committees” to investigate whether Bragg might be using federal funds to “subvert our democracy.” At around 1 P.M., the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Jim Jordan, posted, “God Bless President Trump. Real America knows this is all a sham.” On Monday, Jordan and the Republican chairs of two other committees—James Comer, of Oversight, and Bryan Steil, of House Administration—sent a letter to Bragg requesting his testimony and all “documents and communications” on the matter. Bragg’s office pushed back, and by the end of the week there was talk of subpoenas.
At that point, nobody outside of Bragg’s office and the room in which a grand jury has been hearing the Daniels case since January knew for sure what the exact charges against Trump might be, or whether an indictment would ever come. Trump’s defenders were thus operating on political autopilot. Their task was made easier by the somewhat marginal nature of this particular case, at least in comparison with others being built against Trump.
In Georgia, Fani Willis, the district attorney for Fulton County, may soon decide whether to bring charges in her investigation of alleged attempts to steal the state’s electoral votes in the 2020 election. The evidence includes the notorious recording of Trump telling the Georgia secretary of state to “find” him enough votes to overtake Joe Biden. In Washington, D.C., Jack Smith, a special counsel, won a legal fight to compel the testimony, last week, of one of Trump’s lawyers as part of his investigation into the former President’s handling of a stash of official documents, many of them marked classified, at his Mar-a-Lago home. (The ruling relied on the “crime-fraud exception” to the attorney-client privilege.) Smith is also investigating Trump’s role in the events leading up to the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
And so before long Trump may have to appear in multiple venues to defend himself regarding serious crimes that do relate to the subversion of our democracy. Then there’s the Daniels case. Daniels says that she had consensual sex with Trump once, in 2006; a week and a half before the 2016 election, she signed a nondisclosure agreement negotiated by Michael Cohen, then a Trump lawyer. He wired her the hundred and thirty thousand dollars, using money he raised with a home-equity line of credit. Cohen has said that Trump told him to pay her and then reimbursed him, pointing to a series of checks signed by Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., and a Trump Organization executive. Trump has said that Daniels and Cohen are liars, and that he’s the victim.
As squalid as the whole episode is, paying money for the silence of a former sexual partner is not necessarily a crime. But the checks were allegedly recorded as being for “legal expenses,” according to prosecutors in a separate case against Cohen, and New York has a law against falsifying business records. That offense is only a misdemeanor, however; to make it a felony, the falsification has to have been done to help commit or conceal another crime. Reportedly, Bragg is looking at a campaign-finance offense. It’s not the simplest case, though, and there’s a potential problem with combining a state business charge with a federal election charge, and with relying on testimony from Cohen, who has previously pleaded guilty to financial crimes and to lying to Congress.
Last year, Bragg declined to pursue charges in a case related to Trump’s businesses, a decision that, at the time, prompted criticism from some Democrats and the resignation of two members of the D.A.’s team, one of whom wrote a book disparaging him. Republicans have seized on that dynamic. Nikki Haley, who, like Trump, is running for President, speculated that Bragg wants to get “political points.” Others have decided that Bragg’s going after Trump is actually an illustration of how Democrats are soft on crime. Former Vice-President Mike Pence, for example, said he was “taken aback” that Trump might be indicted “at a time when there’s a crime wave in New York City”—though it’s unclear what one has to do with the other. Pence was in Iowa when he made those remarks; he, too, is a possible challenger to Trump. He is also fighting a subpoena in Smith’s January 6th inquiry.
But Trump has a way of drawing people who express carefully hedged, more or less rational defenses on his behalf into the vortex of his irrational, indefensible rants. Governor Ron DeSantis, of Florida, another potential G.O.P. contender, seems to have hoped for an opportunity to differentiate himself from Trump, with remarks that deplored the possible indictment while emphasizing the terms “hush money” and “porn star.” (“Ron DeSanctimonious,” Trump replied.) DeSantis called Bragg a “Soros-funded prosecutor”—only to see Trump then call the D.A., in a Truth Social post, a “SOROS BACKED ANIMAL.” (George Soros gave money to a group that, in turn, supported Bragg.) Trump also accused Bragg of “doing the work of Anarchists and the Devil” and being a “degenerate psychopath.” He said that an indictment could bring “death & destruction.”
The Daniels imbroglio, in short, may give Republicans a deceptive view of how easy it will be for them to navigate Trump’s burgeoning legal troubles—to appear just loyal enough to not alienate his supporters without getting in too deep, while also scoring political points of their own. But the main defenses here—that the charges are slight, that personal behavior is being criminalized, that New York is a mess—won’t work as well for Trump or his apologists in Georgia or in Washington. One indictment won’t stop others. ♦