Legal Historian: Trump Indictment is an EmbarrassmentRoundup
tags: Donald Trump, Indictment
Mr. Shugerman is a law professor at Fordham and Boston University.
Tuesday was historic for the rule of law in America, but not in the way Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, would have imagined. The 34-count indictment — which more accurately could be described as 34 half-indictments — was a disaster. It was a setback for the rule of law and established a dangerous precedent for prosecutors.
This legal embarrassment reveals new layers of Trumpian damage to the legal foundations of the United States: Mr. Trump’s opponents react to his provocations and norms violations by escalating and accelerating the erosion of legal norms.
The case appears so weak on its legal and jurisdictional basis that a state judge might dismiss the case and mitigate that damage. More likely, the case is headed to federal court for a year, where it could lose on the grounds of federal pre-emption — only federal courts have jurisdiction over campaign finance and filing requirements. Even if it survives a challenge that could reach the Supreme Court, a trial would most likely not start until at least mid-2024, possibly even after the 2024 election.
Instead of the rule of law, it would be the rule of the circus.
Let’s start with the obvious problem that the payments at issue were made around six years ago. The basic facts have been public for five years. There are undoubtedly complicated political reasons for the delay, but regardless, Mr. Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., had almost a year to bring this case after Mr. Trump left office, but did not do so, and Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Justice Department also declined. To address the perception of a reversal and questions of legitimacy, Mr. Bragg had a duty to explain more about the case and its legal basis in what’s known as a “speaking indictment,” which the team of former counsel Robert Mueller made famous in its filings.
Legal experts have been speculating about the core criminal allegation in this case, because the expected charge for “falsifying business records” becomes a felony only “when his intent to defraud includes an intent to commit another crime or to aid or conceal the commission thereof.”
Astonishingly, the district attorney’s filings do not make clear the core crime that would turn a filing misdemeanor into a felony. Neither the 16-page indictment nor the accompanying statement of facts specifies, though the statement of facts does drop hints about campaign laws. In a news conference, Mr. Bragg answered that he did not specify because he was not required to by law. His answer was oblivious to how law requires more than doing the minimum to the letter — it demands fairness, notice and taking public legitimacy seriously.
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