An ex-president who’s always on the attack will no longer be the sole orchestrator of his fate.
Trump has long conjured political storms, alternative realities, legal imbroglios and media spectacles to blur the truth or discredit institutions that have constrained his rule-busting behavior. He’ll lose that ability when he steps before the court at his arraignment in a case related to a hush money payment to an adult film actress.
And there are increasing signs that this new reality – which will come with hefty financial commitments in legal fees and locks on Trump’s calendar – could be multiplied at a time when he’s already facing the intense demands of another White House bid.
That’s because the ex-president – the first to face criminal charges – also appears to face serious problems in a potentially more perilous case involving his alleged mishandling of secret documents being investigated by special counsel Jack Smith. Charges look like an increasing possibility as the Justice Department secures evidence about Trump’s handling of classified documents after leaving the White House.
Smith’s prosecutors have secured daily notes, texts, emails and photographs and are focused on cataloguing how Trump handled classified records around Mar-a-Lago and those who may have witnessed the former president with them, CNN’s Katelyn Polantz and Evan Perez reported Monday. The new details coincide with signs the Justice Department is taking steps consistent with the end of an investigation.
Trump’s former lawyer, Ty Cobb, told CNN’s Erin Burnett that the developments represent a serious turn in the case for the ex-president. “We’ve known the investigatory steps were under way, we just haven’t known alleged results until today,” Cobb said. “I think these are highly consequential.”
The documents case may not be the end of it. Smith is also investigating Trump’s conduct in the run-up to the US Capitol insurrection. Then there’s also a possible prosecution in Georgia led by a district attorney probing the ex-president’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election result in the swing state.
Trump denies any wrongdoing in all of these investigations. He has described his behavior in Georgia as “perfect.” And he has lambasted the sealed indictment in New York, where he faces more than 30 counts related to business fraud, as an example of politicized justice.
But at a grave moment for the country, given that an ex-president and current presidential candidate is about to appear in court, there’s also growing sense of inexorably building pressure on Trump that will compromise his capacity to evade accountability.
Trump tries to direct his own media circus
Trump made a big show on Monday of his return to New York ahead of his arraignment. The snaking motorcade of black Secret Service SUVs to and from his private Boeing 757 in its sparkling new livery carried overtones of a presidential movement in a power play meant to send a message of strength.
Trump is itching to speak publicly. After court Tuesday, he will return to his Mar-a-Lago resort and reclaim the media spotlight with a primetime speech he will likely use to proclaim his innocence, attack the New York case as political persecution and try to distract from the fact he will be a criminal defendant.
Multiple people familiar with Trump’s thinking tell CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Kristen Holmes, however, that he has weighed speaking even earlier, in Manhattan, even as advisers caution the former president that any unplanned remarks put him at high risk of hurting his case. His speech Tuesday night is expected to have legal eyes on it before he delivers it.
But despite his bravura and talk by pundits that he will alchemize his legal problems into political gold, Monday was a dark day for Trump. He was returning to his old stomping ground in Manhattan under duress, to turn himself in on Tuesday over the first-ever criminal charges ever laid against an ex-president. Trump has long been a force of nature who rebels against constraints and has always been impossible for his staff to control. But now he will be subject to the dictates of a judge and the rules and conventions of the legal system, which will be far harder for him to disrupt and divert than the institutions of political accountability he has subverted.
At times, he may be compelled to appear in court. The grueling pre-trial process, with its numerous legal argument deadlines and heaps of evidence the defense must sift through, will impose severe demands on a legal team that has often struggled to act coherently. Ahead of his appearance Tuesday, for instance, Trump made a late shuffle of his legal team, bringing in another attorney, Todd Blanche, to serve as his lead counsel – a move some saw as sidelining another attorney, Joe Tacopina. The ex-president’s camp pushed back on this interpretation, however.
One criminal prosecution is onerous enough. Trump hasn’t been charged in any of the other cases, but a multi-front defense in multiple cases would represent an extraordinary storm. And it would further disrupt the ex-president’s capacity to dictate his political schedule and control his destiny. When he was under scrutiny in the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, or during his two impeachments, Trump exploited his huge popularity with Republican voters to discredit accusations against him. He pressured most GOP senators, who knew they would pay with their careers if they voted to convict him in an impeachment trial.
While public opinion will be critical in shaping the political impact of the New York case, the prosecution itself will be insulated. Acting New York Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan, who will preside over Trump’s arraignment, is immune to his political pressure. In fact, Trump’s attacks on prosecutors or the judge could backfire in a legal arena. And even a former president can’t disregard the choreography of a court case and rules of criminal procedure.
The situation is somewhat similar to the 2020 election, when the will of voters prevailed because Trump’s attempts to have votes thrown out and results changed foundered in multiple courts because of the fact-based standards of evidence and the law.
Trump’s lawyers attempted to wrest some control of the court proceedings on Monday, arguing against a request by news organizations, including CNN, to allow television cameras into Tuesday’s arraignment. The media outlets argued that the case was of such public interest that it should be broadcast. But Trump’s lawyers told the judge that “it will create a circus-like atmosphere at the arraignment, raise unique security concerns, and is inconsistent with President Trump’s presumption of innocence.”
In a late-night ruling, Merchan turned down the request for broadcast cameras. Five still photographers will be allowed to take pictures of Trump and the courtroom before the hearing begins, however.
But the irony of the ex-president complaining about being the subject of a media circus was rich indeed. Without his salesman’s talent for whipping up media circuses, he’d have never have been president. Trump built his “The Art of the Deal” mythology in New York by constantly providing fodder for the city’s ravenous tabloids with his famed celebrity feuds, colorful personal life and business hits and failures. His entire 2016 campaign and his single-term presidency were pageants of outrage, scandal and lawlessness stoked by his often unchained Twitter posts.
If anyone knows how to thrive in a media circus, it is Trump. The difference, perhaps, in this case is that he fears being part of a media circus that he can no longer control.
Katelyn Polantz contributed to this report.