Trump’s trumped-up show trial is a disgrace to America

Published April 17, 2024

The Telegraph

Two things are becoming increasingly clear as Donald Trump’s historic trial gets underway: it will be difficult for him to get a trial most people will accept as fair, and he’s likely to be helped politically no matter what happens.

The perception of unfairness starts with the man who brought the charges, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. District Attorney’s are elected in New York, and in heavily Democratic Manhattan that means aspirants have to appeal to highly partisan primary voters. Bragg did that with repeated statements regarding how many times he had sued Trump or his businesses, and promised to hold him accountable. Given the weak legal basis for his felony indictment, a fact even many liberals acknowledge, it’s no surprise that Trump supporters view this prosecution as grounded in politics, not law.

The presiding judge, Juan Merchan, is also easily painted as a partisan. He donated to Biden’s 2020 campaign and his daughter is a Democratic political consultant. Merchan has nonetheless refused to recuse himself.

Then there’s the jury pool. Jurors are selected from residents of New York County, aka Manhattan, one of the most Democratic and liberal counties in the country. Trump received only 12 percent of the vote there in 2020. He would be lucky if the 12-member jury contains even one person who backed him.

Judge Merchan has crafted a selection process that minimises the ability to discover whether a juror has strong feelings about Trump. The jury questionnaire all prospective jurors must complete does not ask questions about a prospective juror’s political beliefs or partisan inclinations. Nor are Trump’s lawyers allowed to ask about those matters. A staunch Democrat who rabidly hates Trump need only say they can be impartial and they can be seated to render judgment on a man most Democrats have long believed should be in jail.

It is perhaps reassuring that over half of the first set of people up for jury selection couldn’t even pass that test. Fifty of the 96 prospective jurors said their feelings were so intense they did not think they could listen to the evidence and come to a fair judgment.

There are, however, people who passed that test whose impartiality is obviously questionable. Trump’s lawyers are permitted to ask about posts on social media, and a number of prospective jurors have liked or shared posts that exhibit hatred or derision of Trump or Republicans. Merchan has disqualified one person because their post referenced approval of jail time for Trump, but otherwise has said exhibiting dislike for Trump personally does not make someone ineligible. Given the intensity of anti-Trump fervor among Democrats, that’s at best a questionable contention.

All of these factors combined suggest the legal fix may be in for the beleaguered former president. That, however, may only serve to help him at the ballot box.

Trump’s current supporters are galvanized by what they see as a witch hunt and political persecution. Every day Trump sits in a courtroom is one in which they see themselves in the defendant’s chair. This not only means it’s less important for Trump to campaign than a normal candidate; it means turnout among his supporters is likely to be sky high. Democrats now benefit from lower turnout elections since their highly educated voter base is always likeliest to be frequent voters. Prosecuting Trump may be the political version of tickling the tail of a sleeping tiger.

Then there’s the nature of the charges themselves. Bragg’s case boils down to an assertion that Trump’s payments to Stormy Daniels to keep her from talking about their alleged affair was political, not personal. Rather than paying off someone whose claims of an affair could damage him and his marriage, Bragg claims it was intentionally an effort to influence the 2016 election and hence a campaign finance violation because Trump did not report those payments. Most voters will likely see this as an effort to blow up a personal matter into a political one and sympathise with Trump.

That’s what happened when Republicans tried to impeach then-president Bill Clinton after he was caught lying under oath about his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. Republicans said their effort was about upholding the rule of law, but Clinton’s defenders said it was just all about punishing a man trying to hide an affair from his wife. “It’s just about sex” was their cry then; don’t be surprised if Trump defenders adopt the same rallying cry once the evidence is presented.

That’s what will happen if the Democrat-dominated New York judicial system convicts him as expected. What happens politically if just one juror refuses to follow the script, causing a hung jury? Trump’s cries of “witch hunt” will seem even truer then.

It’s a blot on America that Trump’s trial is so manifestly titled against him. If he gets political mileage out of it anyway, the last laugh will be on the Inspector Javerts who have tried so hard to get him.

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.

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